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Japan is forbidden by its constitution from maintaining land, sea or air forces. But no one said it could not have a commander-in-chief.
That was how Shinzo Abe, prime minister, referred to himself on Tuesday as he thanked members of Japan’s Air Self Defence Forces – Japan’s pacifist nomenclature does not permit use of the term “air force” – dispatched to Kuwait to fly supply missions into Iraq.
Mr Abe swept into the dusty Ali Al Salem Air Base, 23 miles from the Iraqi border, to review his troops. Like some feudal clan, his retinue was led in under a bright purple flag decorated with cherry blossoms, a treasured national symbol.
At a podium erected in a giant air hangar, “Commander” Abe told more than 100 Japanese personnel lined up before a C-130 transport aircraft: “You will be the ones who will turn the Iraqi reconstruction work into a glorious chapter in the history of Japan. As your commander-in-chief I want to thank you from my heart.”
Mr Abe has made it his mission to restore pride to Japan, which he and other conservatives argue was lost when, in 1946, as an occupied nation, it forever renounced the right to wage war or come to the aid of its allies. One of his first acts as prime minister was to upgrade the defence agency to full ministry status. He has also promised to rewrite the pacifist constitution.
Michael Green, a former senior adviser on Asia to the US, said: “Abe wants to do to what his grandfather wasn’t able to do by making Japan a proud country that can stand up tall as part of the western camp.”
Mr Abe’s grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, who as prime minister in 1960 renegotiated the US-Japan alliance in an effort to raise Japan’s status.
Since then, with US encouragement, Japan has gradually stretched the interpretation of its constitution. Even though military spending is held below 1 per cent of gross domestic product, Japan is the world’s fifth-highest defence spender and has some of the most sophisticated forces.
In 2003, Junichiro Koizumi, Mr Abe’s predecessor, broke the last taboo by sending 550 ground forces on a reconstruction mission to southern Iraq in symbolic support of the US invasion. The troops never fired a shot and had to be protected by UK and Australian soldiers.
Last year, Tokyo withdrew ground forces but extended airlift missions, flying US military and United Nations personnel and equipment into Baghdad and Irbil in northern Iraq. Mr Abe, who in Abu Dhabi this week became the first postwar prime minister to review forces abroad has pledged to increase the number and range of such missions.
Dressed in a sombre black suit and speaking over the drone of landing aircraft, he told his forces that, far from home amid the sandstorms of Kuwait, they were working “for Japan, for Iraq and for world peace”. “Even more important than the UN and the US, you have won the thanks of the Iraq people,” he said.
Mr Abe appears to be trying to polish his leadership credentials on the world stage and, as the idea of Japan venturing abroad becomes less controversial, many Japanese people will see his Middle East performance as a step to laying postwar shame to rest.