U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Friday urged the Japanese to take a wider role in world affairs, a position that is controversial here and in other East Asian nations.
In an address at Sophia University, a Jesuit institution, Gates said he hoped that Japan would take on more “global security responsibilities” in the year ahead.
“Japan has the opportunity -- and an obligation -- to take on a role that reflects its political, economic and military capacity,” Gates said.
After the speech, students pressed Gates on what he meant by pushing Japan for a more aggressive role.
He said he hoped Japan would increase its contributions to peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and reconstruction.
One journalism student pressed Gates on whether he was advocating a change to the Japanese Constitution.
Gates said it was “inappropriate to editorialize” on domestic Japanese issues, but without saying so directly he suggested that he supported a “broader interpretation” of the constitution that could allow more international participation.
The Defense secretary’s comments come as Japan is debating its participation in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
Japan’s post-World War II Constitution has limited its role in overseas military operations. Under prodding by American leaders, Japan has begun debating the limits and has sent troops to serve at the periphery of international conflicts.
Japan has contributed a destroyer and an oiler to refuel ships patrolling in the Indian Ocean as part of maritime activities in support of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, including interdicting suspected terrorists, smugglers and drug runners.
But the refueling mission, criticized by members of the opposition party, was halted last week as the Japanese parliament, or Diet, debated reauthorizing the country’s participation in the war.
Although Japan has provided about $195 million worth of fuel, it accounts for only about 7% of the energy supplies used in the operation.
Still, Japan’s help is of huge symbolic value to the United States, which wants to keep as many countries as possible involved in the Afghanistan operation.
At a news conference with Gates on Thursday, Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said that continuing the refueling mission was in Japan’s national interest and suggested that the suspension could be hurting anti-terrorism efforts.
Privately, Gates told the Japanese leaders that he hoped they would resume participation in the refueling mission, and Japanese ministers said they hoped to restart the program soon.