TOKYO -- Japan's lower house of parliament approved long-awaited legislation yesterday that spells out how it will assist U.S. military forces if conflict breaks out in its neighborhood.
The guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation do not require Japan to change its "no war" constitution or to fight unless directly attacked.
But for the first time, they do commit Japan to helping the United States preserve peace and stability in vaguely defined "areas surrounding Japan," including performing search-and-rescue operations, resupplying U.S. troops and offering behind-the-lines logistical support.
"There is a near-consensus being formed that unconditional pacifism is not a practical policy after all," said former diplomat Yukio Okamoto.
Though Japan's small Communist and socialist parties opposed the legislation, and pacifist teachers and labor unions have demonstrated in front of parliament against the bills they fear would drag Japan into an "American war," polls indicate that up to 70 percent of Japanese were in favor.
Last week, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley dismissed as "total nonsense" the notion that passage of the guidelines would cause Japan to lose control of its self-defense forces, as some on the left here fear. But Foley also noted that the Japanese people have shown no appetite for scrapping the "self-defense only" constitution.
Debate over details of the three defense laws was heated. In a last-minute compromise struck Sunday, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, agreed with two other major parties to delete a controversial provision that would have allowed Japanese naval forces to board and inspect foreign ships, for example in order to enforce economic sanctions.
The bills are expected to win final approval from the less powerful upper house of parliament this week. That would allow Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to present the package to President Clinton during their May 3 summit in Washington.
The LDP promised to reintroduce separate legislation on maritime inspection -- a provision Japan had promised the United States -- and try to get it through parliament by the end of June.
Though the guidelines identify no country as an adversary, Japan has grown more wary of North Korea since Pyongyang fired a long-range ballistic missile over Japan last summer and then allegedly sent two spy ships deep into Japanese waters last month.
Chinese officials have made clear that they view the wording of the guidelines, which invoke a Japanese duty to respond to military emergencies in "areas surrounding Japan," to be aimed at them, and that it threatens Japanese military confrontation should China use force against Taiwan.
Japan and the United States have steadfastly refused China's demands to specify whether Taiwan is included.