TOKYO -- In a setback for the Japanese government, the defense minister was forced to resign last night after declaring that Japan's constitutional limitations on the use of military force are out of date and urging passage of an amendment to permit full participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
The resignation of Keisuke Nakanishi, the 52-year-old director-general of Japan's Self-Defense Agency, underscores the intensity of the disagreements within the government over Japan's expanding international role, especially at a time when the country is seeking a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
It also reflects the fragility of the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. Mr. Hosokawa accepted the resignation as soon as it became clear that an argument over Mr. Nakanishi's comments could rip apart the coalition and derail his efforts to pass a critical political reform bill and an economic stimulus package.
The prime minister acknowledged yesterday for the first time that he will probably not meet his self-imposed deadline of getting final approval of the political reform effort in Parliament by the end of the year.
By U.S. political standards, Mr. Nakanishi's comments would seem almost innocuous. At a reception on Wednesday night for members of his political party, the Shinseito, who led the rebellion that ousted the Liberal Democrats, Mr. Nakanishi suggested that the constitution should be changed to permit Japanese participation in peacekeeping operations.
Japan's constitution, drafted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur when he commanded U.S. occupation forces in Japan, declares that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of a nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes."
After more than a year of argument, Japan passed legislation last year permitting the dispatch of peacekeeping troops under strict conditions, including prohibitions on engaging in activity likely to get them involved in combat. The law was used to send 600 peacekeepers to Cambodia earlier this year, the first deployment of Japanese troops outside the country since World War II.
Two Japanese were killed during the operation. Since the rest of the troops returned several months ago, there has been an continuing debate over whether the constitutional limits on using force make it impossible for Japanese to operate effectively within the U.N. command and make them easy targets for attack.