Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi on Friday renewed calls for “quick and smooth” passage of bills covering defense cooperation with the United States, as the Diet finally began deliberating the long-simmering issue.

Speaking at a plenary session of the House of Representatives, Obuchi expressed hope the bills would clear the Diet without changes. “There is no fact that the government is studying the revision of the bills,” Obuchi said, responding to a question by Social Democratic Party member Harumi Tsujimoto. “The government strongly expects that the bills, which are important for Japan’s peace and security, will clear the Diet at an early date.”

Roughly a year after they were submitted to the legislature, the government kicked off deliberations of the three bills by explaining their contents and taking questions from both ruling and opposition camps.

The Obuchi administration hopes to gain Lower House passage by the time Obuchi visits the United States in May. Washington has been pushing for implementation of the updated guidelines since they were revised in 1997 to expand bilateral defense cooperation to cover emergencies in unspecified “areas surrounding Japan.”

Nevertheless, it is expected to be a contentious debate.

The Democratic Party of Japan and New Komeito, the largest and second-largest opposition parties, urged the government to amend the bills, while the Japanese Communist Party and the SDP called for scrapping them, saying they run counter to the pacifist concept of the Constitution and will lead Japan to engage in war.

What’s more, Obuchi’s Liberal Democratic Party lacks a majority in the House of Councilors, even with the support of its Liberal Party ally, and must gain opposition support if the bills are to be passed. And that could force the LDP to amend the bills — despite Obuchi’s rhetoric.

One of the bills concerns ensuring Japan’s peace and security in the event of a military-related emergency in a neighboring area. It urges the state, local administrations and the Self-Defense Forces to back U.S. forces with logistics support, search-and-rescue operations and inspection of ships to enforce economic sanctions.

Another would revise the SDF Law to provide for the dispatch of ships and sea-based helicopters, in addition to aircraft, to evacuate Japanese civilians overseas.

A bill to revise the Japan-U.S. Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement would enable SDF units to provide U.S. forces with logistics support, with the exception of weapons and ammunition, at the moment.

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