TOKYO, Japan -- A flotilla of three Japanese warships carrying several hundred sailors set sail for the Indian Ocean Friday morning, making good on the Japanese government's pledge to support U.S.-led forces in the war against terrorism.
Their mission is to provide non-combat military support. This role is unlike any Japan has filled since World War II.
Ten years ago Japan agreed to send minesweepers to the Persian Gulf only after the Gulf War was over.
"This mission is a first, but we are trained to be able to respond to whatever contingencies may arise," Rear Admiral Hirotaka Honda told the Associated Press.
"We want to show what we are capable of."
The mission, which follows weeks of debate in Japan's parliament, is controversial: Opponents at home and in Asian nations that suffered the brunt of Japanese militarism during World War II fear it could be a first step toward loosening constitutional constraints on Japan's armed forces.
The 5,200-ton destroyer Kurama, the 4,550-ton destroyer Kirisame and the 8,100-ton supply ship Haman were dispatched under a new law that allows Japan's Self-Defense Forces to participate in a backup role in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.
The vessels carrying 700 sailors left from a Japanese base at Sasebo, 1,000 kilometers (614 miles) southwest of Tokyo shortly before 7 a.m (2200 GMT).
They will sail through the Strait of Malacca, government and military officials said.
Japan's navy is expected to transport supplies and fuel for allied forces operating in Afghanistan.
It will take two weeks before the deployment reaches the Indian Ocean.
There, the ships will gather intelligence for the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, a spokesman for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said.
The ships will also determine the nature of a second naval deployment, the spokesman said, expected mid-November.
It was reported that Japan was considering dispatching a high-tech Aegis destroyer but opted against it, fearing such a move would weaken Japan's own territorial self-defense capabilities.
Last month the Japanese parliament passed new legislation to allow the country's Self-Defense Force to operate in non-combat roles, including intelligence gathering and the transport of supplies, to assist the anti-terror coalition.
Friday's deployment gained final authorization after Japan's cabinet voted on the matter Thursday.
Prime Minister Koizumi has given his full support to the U.S. actions in its war against terrorism and promised Japan's full cooperation in response to the September 11 attacks.
Japan's leader though is under pressure to strike a balance between military support to the anti-terror campaign and fears among regional neighbors of a revival in Japanese militarism.
Asian countries still harbor bitter memories of atrocities committed by Japanese troops throughout the region in the first half of the last century.
Previous laws, under the country's post-World War II constitution, had barred Japan from taking part in any overseas military operation unless it was threatened or attacked directly.
Successive Japanese governments have interpreted the constitution, drawn up after the Japanese defeat in 1945, as banning collective self-defense or aiding allies in military endeavors.
Opposition parties have argued that providing even non-combatant manpower violates the constitutional bar on using military force to solve international disputes.
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