More power for Japanese military overseas
Bill set to allow the Self-Defence Forces to take armed action to protect nationals
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Stung by criticism over the Algerian hostage crisis, in which at least seven Japanese died last week, the Japanese government says it is planning legal changes to enable its military to better protect its nationals overseas.
Suggestions that Tokyo wants to grant its military the right to use force in certain overseas missions - an option presently denied - are unlikely to be welcomed in other countries in the region, notably China, with which Japan is locked in an acrimonious territorial dispute.
The crisis at a gas plant in the Algerian desert highlighted Japan's inability to provide effective assistance to its nationals in many parts of the world.
At least seven Japanese employees of engineering firm JGC were confirmed killed in the raid by Islamic militants. A further three are missing.
A task force made up of the Liberal Democratic Party and its ruling ally, the New Komeito party, agreed on Tuesday to seek revisions to the Self-Defence Forces Act as a result.
"We would like to consider legal changes on how to protect Japanese nationals," said Yoshihisa Inoue, the secretary general of New Komeito.
He said his party - traditionally seen as a moderating influence on the more nationalistic LDP - supports the bill to allow the SDF to use force in the course of overseas missions.
The bill could be submitted to the next session of parliament, the Diet, which is due to open on Monday.
One of the clauses of the act likely to be amended states that SDF personnel can be sent to potential conflict zones only when "the safety of transportation has been secured", a stipulation that constrains the forces' access and freedom to move.
The SDF also operates under strict rules on the use of its weapons. The limitations prevented Japanese troops carrying out humanitarian relief and reconstruction work in Iraq from using weapons and they had to be provided with armed guards made up of other members of the allied coalition.
SDF personnel are also currently barred from transporting Japanese nationals from an inland area to an airport or sea port, meaning that Japanese forces would have been unable to help evacuate civilians in the Algerian crisis.
Changes to all these provisions are almost certain to be enacted soon after being put before the Diet, with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan also expressing support.
"It is the government's responsibility to appropriately handle situations in which the lives of Japanese are in danger," said Goshi Hosono, the secretary general of the DPJ.