For the first time since the end of the World War II, Japanese naval ships are sea bound on a foreign assignment. Their mission in the Persian Gulf is to clear mines that threaten the safe passage of commercial ships. The welcome action--even though it comes two months after the end of the Gulf War--shows Tokyo's new willingness to assume an expanded international role.
That's a significant departure from the checkbook diplomacy that disappointed so many of Japan's friends during the Mideast crisis. Until now, Japanese leaders, including current Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, have pegged the country's foreign policy to providing economic aid. But that backfired badly during the Gulf War. Despite a $13-billion contribution to the Gulf effort and a constitution that seemingly prohibits the use of troops overseas, Tokyo was roundly criticized for not having a presence in the Gulf. In dispatching last week four minesweepers and two support ships, manned by Maritime Self Defense Forces, Tokyo was careful not to forsake the constitutional ban against deploying forces overseas for combat. The minesweepers were activated under a law that allows the Japanese navy to use them.
Kaifu called the action a "contribution to international society" in peacetime to ensure the safe passage of Japanese ships in the Gulf. Minesweeping operations are there from the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, and Germany, which is under similar constitutional restraints.