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TOKYO — Japan’s Defense Agency became a full-fledged government ministry on Tuesday, an internal change that increases its ability to plan strategy and spend money while fast-tracking its response in overseas missions, ministry spokesmen and experts have said in recent days.

“The transition to the Defense Ministry is a result of increasing public understanding and trust of self-defense forces through [disaster relief and peacekeeping] efforts as well as its increasing role in national politics,” stated Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma.

The shift is significant, he said, because it gives the ministry greater control over the defense policies it must carry out — something he called “a most fundamental mission for a nation.”

The newly named Ministry of Defense will have a Cabinet seat and become equal to other sectors of Japan’s government — as one expert said, elevating Japan’s defense forces to first-class status within Diet corridors.

“The defense agency was designated as an ‘agency’ very deliberately, a second-tier status, so that the ministry wouldn’t be a major power within the Japanese government” after World War II, Steven Vogel, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a telephone interview Saturday.

“This is a symbolic move to say [Japan is] ending that era,” said Vogel, who specializes in Japanese studies and once worked at the Defense Agency.

The change does not affect Article 9 of the country’s constitution, the famous section limiting Japan’s military to a defense force.

But it does reflect the military’s current direction of increasing its defense capabilities at home while playing a larger international role in peacekeeping missions, including Japan’s past involvement in Iraq, experts say.

“By shifting to a ministry and making such activities as international peacekeeping a primary mission,” Kyuma stated, “we can clearly indicate … that our nation will actively be involved in national defense and international peace.”

Upgrading the agency to a ministry, a defense-ministry spokesman said last week, will give Japanese self-defense forces equal footing “with our counterparts in foreign countries when we participate in security talks or international peace activities.”

As an agency, the military had to turn to up to three other government offices to get money or set policy: the ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry. It would be like the U.S. State Department having to approve all Pentagon proposals before forwarding them to Congress, those interviewed said.

The defense ministry now will more directly control its approximately 252,000 active-duty and 57,000 reserve components, experts said.

“The Japanese people and government are more accepting that they have a military force and they have a defense policy,” Vogel said. “They feel they should play a more active role in the world stage, specifically in peacekeeping.”

Teikyo University professor Toshiyuku Shikata, a retired Self-Defense Force lieutenant general, agreed. He called the change a clear indication that national defense is one of Japan’s core concerns.

He also said the change would designate overseas peacekeeping as a primary mission of the military. Before, overseas peacekeeping was classified officially as “miscellaneous,” a classification Shikata called “ridiculous.”

But not everyone is happy with the change.

Motofumi Asai, Hiroshima Peace Institute director at Hiroshima City University, said giving the defense forces full-fledged ministry status violates Japan’s constitutional promise to renounce war and using force to settle international disputes.

Asai said this could call into question Japan’s role during a crisis, such as with North Korea. Now, he said, the ministry “can determine a state of emergency in areas surrounding Japan, allowing them to exercise great leadership to lead Japan to the state of war.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.

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