TOKYO (AP) _ Moving with unusual speed, Japanese lawmakers on Monday authorized the country's military to back U.S.-led forces in the war on terror as long as they do not go into actual combat.
The speedy approval _ just 25 days after it was introduced _ reflects Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's desire to avoid the criticism that befell Japan during the 1991 Gulf War. Tokyo was slammed for its ``checkbook diplomacy'' of offering mostly money to the international coalition fighting Iraq.
Koizumi championed the legislation as a way for Japan to make a meaningful contribution to the campaign against Osama bin Laden, prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, and stay within the confines of the nation's pacifist constitution.
``We now need to implement our response based on this law as soon as possible,'' Koizumi said in a statement after the law was passed. ``The government views the fight against terrorism as a challenge of its own.''
Japanese officials are scheduled to meet with U.S. diplomats and defense officials on Thursday to assess how Japan can help. Koizumi's Cabinet must then approve the plan. Officials also will go to Pakistan to assess the situation.
A Japanese press report suggested the Defense Ministry is considering sending four warships to the Indian Ocean as early as mid-November. While stressing that Japan is mustering support as fast as it can, Koizumi spokesman Tsutomu Himeno declined to comment on equipment or timetables.
``There is probably a bigger role for Japanese forces in eventual peacekeeping operations,'' said Shigenori Okazaki, a political analyst with UBS Warburg.
The new law allows Japan's military to transport supplies, conduct search-and-rescue missions and dispatch medical teams in support of U.S. forces and their allies. Japanese units are restricted to areas where they are not likely to face combat.
The upper house gave final approval Monday, passing one bill by a 140-100 vote, another by 197-39 and the third by 225-8. Koizumi's three-party governing coalition holds a majority in both houses.
Memories of World War II make some Japanese uncomfortable with the idea of sending their military on operations abroad, and Japan's tiny Socialist and Communist parties argue that providing even non-combat support violates the country's post-World War II constitution.
The constitution, written by U.S. Occupation authorities after Japan's 1945 surrender, bans Japan from using military force as a means of settling international disputes. Koizumi has argued that does not preclude using it in a supporting role.
``We should remember how Japan's wartime military went out of control,'' Toshio Fujii of the opposition Democratic Party said while urging lawmakers to adopt a watered down alternative proposal, which was defeated.
The final version requires the government to seek parliament's approval for dispatching the military within 20 days of giving orders to move out. It also prohibits the Japanese military from transporting weapons and ammunition on foreign soil.
Still, recent opinion polls suggest that a narrow majority of voters approve.
Japanese media have reported that initial missions will probably involve naval vessels transporting fuel and gathering reconnaissance.