Japan ordered the resumption on Friday of a naval mission supporting the US-led “war on terror” as the government overrode a rejection in parliament for the first time in the modern era. Embattled Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda won US praise for taking the drastic measure to restart the mission but analysts said he risked a domestic backlash by ramming through the controversial legislation.
The opposition, which won control of one house of parliament last year, in November forced an end to the naval mission, under which Japan provided fuel in the Indian Ocean to coalition forces operating in Afghanistan.
The opposition-led upper house voted down legislation to restart the mission on Friday, the last day it had to take action on the bill. But the move meant the bill returned to the lower house, where Fukuda’s coalition still enjoys an overwhelming majority. The more powerful chamber immediately voted largely along party lines, 340-133, to approve the bill. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) argued that the mission was vital to show Japan’s contribution to international security.
“We spent a great deal of time explaining the points of the bill. I believe we have won understanding, at least in parliament,” Fukuda told reporters.
Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba promptly issued orders for ships to return to the Indian Ocean and said they would resume operations in about six weeks.
The dispute over the mission had been a factor in leading Fukuda’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, to resign in September.
The United States, Japan’s main ally, hailed Fukuda for pushing through the legislation. “Terrorism is the bane of our time. By passing this legislation, Japan has demonstrated its willingness to stand with those who are trying to create a safer, more tolerant world,” said Thomas Schieffer, the US ambassador to Japan.
The opposition countered that Japan, which has been officially pacifist since World War II, should not take part in “American wars.” The upper house passed on Friday a largely symbolic alternative bill calling for more civilian support to rebuild Afghanistan.
Yukio Hatoyama, a senior leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, denounced the lower-house vote by the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito, as “outrageous.”
“They forced the nation to blindly follow the US diplomatic and security policies,” he said. “LDP and New Komeito simply turned a blind eye to future problems.”
Japan’s 1947 constitution allows the lower house to approve a bill in a second vote by a two-thirds majority even after the upper house rejects it. According to a parliamentary spokeswoman, the provision has been used only once before – for a law regulating motor boat racing in 1951, a year before Japan regained its sovereignty following the US occupation.
“It’s always possible that the public becomes divided. The clause in the constitution is meant for situations like this where the lower house and upper house have different decisions,” said Ishiba, the defence minister.
But analysts said the drastic move proved risky for the LDP, which has been in power for all but 10 months since the conservative party was founded in 1955.
Fukuda is struggling to reverse sliding poll numbers following a raft of scandals.
“The fact that the government had to resort to the last measure shows the prime minister failed to engage the opposition,” said Tetsuro Kato, political science professor at Hitotsubashi University. “His cabinet’s support rate could decline further,” he said.
The new one-year legislation imposes limits on the use of the fuel. Ishiba said Japan would try to secure written promises from countries receiving the fuel after allegations that previous shipments went to support US operations in Iraq.