Prime Minister Taro Aso has puzzled many in his government and party with his indication that he may move to enable the Self-Defense Forces to exercise the right to collective self-defense, lifting decades-old legal restrictions.

Aso was known as an advocate of the policy even before he become prime minister. Yet a remark he made to that effect at U.N. headquarters — only one day after becoming the head of government — drew fresh attention both in and outside Japan.

Aso, who is known to occasionally commit gaffes, baffled many Japanese officials and even Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers with the comment, and there are few signs so far the issue will grow into a major political topic in the near future.

“It’s not exactly clear to me what the prime minister meant,” a senior government official said in New York.

Aso said Sept. 25 that he thinks the right to collective self-defense is an “important” issue when asked by reporters about whether he intends to change Japan’s current policy.

Another senior government official tried to downplay the remark.

“The prime minister only repeated what he has believed since long before,” he said. “I don’t think he made the comment with a special intention.”

A senior LDP lawmaker closely involved in defense and security matters reacted similarly.

“We can continue discussions on the matter, but this is not going to be a political issue for the time being,” the lawmaker said.

Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada suggested in Tokyo that now is not an appropriate time to take up the issue because a House of Representatives election, the first big nationwide election in three years, is widely expected to be called soon.

But Aso’s remark brought the issue, a politically sensitive matter due to the war-renouncing Constitution, into the limelight for the first time since hawkish Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister about a year ago.

Successive governments have taken the position that Japan has the right to collective self-defense but cannot exercise it, a legal interpretation disputed by some legal scholars.

Abe led a project to lift the ban in step with political moves in which the old Defense Agency was upgraded to a full ministry, while adding international contributions to the main duties of the SDF last year.

Opponents have said Japan could be sucked into war in violation of the Constitution if SDF personnel were to be put in a situation where they have no other choice but to defend an ally under attack or to fight back for the ally — in effect the United States, Japan’s closest security ally.

In June, a panel of experts set up under Abe urged then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to lift the ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense.

But Fukuda chose to ignore the report, which has been shelved since then.

Meanwhile, the first government official suggested that Japan should give a clear answer to the question sooner or later because the country has tried to give the SDF a bigger overseas role.

“Even if non-Japanese troops came under attack just in front of the SDF in a foreign country, the SDF could do almost nothing for them under the current law. I wonder if that is the right thing to do,” the official said, asking to remain anonymous.

Some SDF officers have admitted they are frustrated at the lack of a clear position by the government on the question of whether the SDF can defend allies overseas.

“I don’t understand the rhetoric. We have the right to defend foreign allies technically, but cannot do it,” a Ground Self-Defense Force officer said.

“We are always ready to go to a foreign country to help somebody without engaging in combat if the government tells us to do so in the future. But it is hard to be in a situation where we are not allowed to do anything to help foreign troops in danger,” the officer said.

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