TOKYO -- Japan will send six vessels to help clear mines from the Persian Gulf, the first overseas use of Japanese forces since World War II, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu announced last night.
Reached more than a month after the end of the gulf war, the decision will create the first tangible product of Japan's eight-month constitutional debate on how to add a "physical presence" to supplement its more than $13 billion in cash contributions to the coalition of nations that defeated Iraq and to countries affected by the war.
Answering questions at a press conference, Mr. Kaifu struggled for the right balance -- between making the most, for Western consumption, of a modest and long-delayed physical contribution to security in the region that supplies most of Japan's oil and making the least, for domestic political consumption, of any change in Japan's 45 years of postwar pacifism.
The assignment, Mr. Kaifu argued, "will not in any way constitute the dispatch of troops abroad," which is prohibited by Japan's postwar constitution.
Even before Mr. Kaifu announced the minesweeper plan, it faced demonstrations in some of the ports where the vessels are based and acourt challenge by 250 citizens.
But, in contrast to several previous attempts to send personnel to the Persian Gulf, recent polls have consistently shown substantial majorities of Japanese either approving this plan or accepting it as a necessity.
The task force will consist of about 510 men aboard four minesweepers and two support ships.
During the gulf crisis, there were a series of aborted plans to get Japanese personnel into the region to show the flag in solidarity with allied forces without violating the constitution.
A plan to send civilian medical teams died for lack of volunteers; a bill to establish a "U.N. Peace Cooperation Force" was killed by raucous opposition in Parliament; a plan to send military transport planes to move refugees never got diplomatic clearance from countries in the area, most notably Jordan.
Because "peace has been established" by a United Nations cease-fire, Mr. Kaifu said, the purpose of sending the minesweepers is not war but "an effort toward peace."
Sadaaki Numata, deputy press secretary of the Foreign Ministry, said there is no plan to put military personnel in Turkey, Iran or Iraq to help the Kurdish refugees, as Germany did this week in its first overseas use of ground troops since World War II.
The ships will leave Japan tomorrow and are expected to call at several Southeast and South Asian ports during their month-long trip to the gulf.
Those port calls are expected to include the Philippines and Singapore, two Southeast Asian neighbors that were among Japan's World War II victims and long resisted any thought of Japanese naval or military movements. Both have said in recent months that they would welcome stops by Japanese aircraft or ships being sent to help in the gulf.
Mr. Kaifu also announced a large increase in Japan's monetary contributions to international help for displaced Iraqi Kurds.
Mr. Numata said the overall contribution to the Kurds will be increased from $17.5 million as of yesterday to $100 million. The new figure is about one-fourth of the total being sought by international relief agencies helping the Kurds.