Japan is to create a full-fledged defense ministry for the first time since its World War II defeat, when the United States stripped the country of its right to a military.
The government is to upgrade the existing Defense Agency into the Defense Ministry. The agency had a lower standing than full-fledged ministries as Japan's 1947 constitution declared the country to be pacifist.
The creation of the ministry was a top priority for Prime Minster Shinzo Abe. The Diet, or parliament, passed the required legislation, with support from both the ruling coalition and main opposition, late December.
The move is based on “a change in the security environment surrounding our country,” Defense Agency Chief Fumio Kyuma said during a military exercise in Chiba, southeast of Tokyo, at the weekend.
“It is important to make our Self-Defense Force more powerful,” said Kyuma, who is to become the nation's first defense minister since the end of the war.
Japanese troops will still be called the “Self-Defense Force” despite the creation of the ministry. The country has one of the world's biggest military budgets at 4.81 trillion yen (41.6 billion dollars) a year.
Previous attempts to create a defense ministry stalled over political sensitivities in light of Japan's past aggression and fears of upsetting neighboring countries.
In a groundbreaking move, Japan sent troops on a reconstruction mission to Iraq, the first time since 1945 that it had deployed to a country where fighting was underway.
The troops suffered no casualties and never fired their weapons, relying on Australian, British and Dutch forces to protect them.
Japan also sent close to 1,000 troops to Indonesia to assist with relief after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Besides symbolism, the law will also give the defense ministry more power in internal wrangling by letting it submit its own budget requests.
The law changes the status of troops, listing overseas activities as one of their missions. Until now, deployments abroad were considered “extraordinary”, leading the government to seek parliamentary approval.
The bill also scraps the Defense Agency body that manages facilities after employees were arrested for alleged bid-rigging.
The government of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi cited the scandal to delay the creation of the defense ministry.