The Japanese cabinet endorsed a bill on Friday to upgrade the nation's Defence Agency to a fully-fledged ministry.
The bill got the green light after a U-turn on the issue by New Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's coalition partner.
This move, a further example of Tokyo showing the teeth of its expanding military, will cause concern among Japan's neighbors.
Attempting to justify the upgrading, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe claimed that the Defence Agency deserved the status of a ministry in order to "respond to any situation."
Defence Chief Fukushiro Nukaga told legislators earlier this year that his agency should be upgraded to a ministry to meet Japan's growing international military obligations.
The bill is awaiting approval from the Diet, which will end its current session on June 18 and convene again in the autumn.
Japan has already been testing the limits of its pacifist Constitution, which renounces the use of force to settle international disputes.
The country has sent some 600 troops to Iraq in its first deployment since World War II to a country where conflict is under way, and a Japanese contingent is providing logistical support to operations in Afghanistan.
Japanese politicians should know well why the Defence Agency was established in 1954 with a lower status than other ministries.
Despite continued sensitivities about the country's militarist past, Japanese leaders are ready to ignore the collective sense of guilt that exists for the nation's wartime atrocities.
The aim of the bill is to upgrade peacekeeping and other overseas operations so that they will become part of the regular duties of Japanese troops.
Japan's military expansion is also supported by arms purchases.
The United States Department of Defence has announced its approval for the sale of nine interceptor missiles with Ballistic Missile Defence upgrades to Japan, in a potential US$458 million deal.
The deal, which is proposed to enhance Japan's defensive capabilities, will build up its capability to threaten its neighbors.
The upgrading of Japan's Defence Agency is not merely a change of name, it is a display of ambition. Japan's unwillingness to resolve issues related to its militarist past means that many are suspicious of its enthusiasm for defence and security issues.
The historic move to upgrade the Defence Agency, along with many others to enhance its military muscle, makes a mockery of Japan's pacifist Constitution.
Japan's neighbors have every right to ask what direction this increasingly militarized nation is headed in.
Japan has around 240,000 troops in its Self-Defence Forces and one of the world's biggest defence expenditures.
The growing chorus for building a stronger military in Japan is loud enough to make its neighbors sit up and take notice.
(China Daily June 12, 2006)