- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Japan Defense Agency is about to become the Japanese Ministry of Defense, a change in name that seems small on the surface but reflects a substantial shift in Japanese thinking on national security and is a signal to potential adversaries in North Korea and China.

In Japanese, the new name requires changing only one ideogram, from “cho” to “sho.” In Romanized Japanese, it is but one letter.

In American English, most people would not see much difference between “agency” and “ministry,” but in a nation often driven by symbols, the shift reflects a new assertiveness as Japan prepares to deal with any threats from China, officials and analysts say.

The Diet, Japan’s legislature, authorized the change last month with surprisingly little opposition, given the pacifist stance of left-wing parties in the past. It becomes effective tomorrow.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that the name change “demonstrates both domestically and internationally the maturity of Japanese democracy.”

Mr. Abe also said the change shows “our confidence in civilian control. It also sends a signal that Japan is prepared to contribute even more to the international community and that it will take on its role responsibly.”

North Korea and China say the move reflects a resurgence of Japanese militarism.

The Korean Central News Agency, controlled by the government in Pyongyang, said turning the defense agency into a ministry was intended to realize Japan’s “militarist ambition for overseas expansion.”

The People’s Daily, which is controlled by China’s government, said the shift reflected “a change in nature” for Japan’s defense establishment as it “clears barriers for the Japanese armed forces on their way of going beyond self-defense.”

However, analysts say it was belligerence from the North Koreans and Chinese that accelerated a Japanese revision of their thinking on military power and caused Tokyo to strengthen its defense ties with the United States.

In practical politics, the director-general of the defense agency becomes the minister of defense and a member of the Cabinet that presides over the executive branch of Tokyo’s government.

That Cabinet of a dozen ministers drawn from the Diet is roughly the equivalent of the U.S. presidency, a fact often overlooked outside Japan.

Until now, the head of the defense agency was somewhat of a political nonentity. It had been said that the only thing a director-general of the agency was able to accomplish politically was to have a military band parade in his hometown.

The defense minister, however, will have more say about his ministry’s budget than in the past, when it was fashioned largely by bureaucrats from the prime minister’s office and the Finance Ministry.

Internationally, in dealing with top defense officials from other nations, the Japanese defense minister will be treated now “as an equal governmental chief in both name and reality,” says Tokyo’s 2006 white paper on defense. In prestige-conscious Japan, this counts.

Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, however, will keep their names, both in Japanese and in translation. The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force will not become the Japanese army and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force will not become the Japanese navy. At least not yet; some senior retired officers have been quietly lobbying for those names to be revised, too.

The birth of the Defense Ministry is part of a plan to improve Japan’s security.

Mr. Abe says he wants to amend Article 9 of the constitution, under which Japan renounces force as an instrument of national power. It has been at the heart of Japanese pacifism for 60 years. The revision would constitutionally permit Japan to use military force to protect its interests.

The prime minister also has said that Japan needs a national security council similar to Washington’s and should form an agency to gather and analyze intelligence. Today, the Japanese prime minister has only a small research office to provide analyses of events and trends abroad.

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