Koizumi lends support - but no military help

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Japan may be a key American ally, the world's second-biggest economy and the second most populous industrialised country – but, just as in the Gulf War a decade ago, it will be taking a largely subordinate role in President Bush's worldwide campaign against terrorism.

Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese Prime Minister, toured areas of the Pentagon damaged in the 11 September attack before going to the White House to assure Mr Bush of unflinching support. Bolstering him was a poll in Tokyo showing that 70 per cent of the public supports Japanese logistical backing for any American assault on Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network in Afghanistan. But outright military participation by Japan's Self-Defence Force (as the country's armed forces are called) is in effect banned by the postwar constitution, in force since 1947, which rules out war as a means of settling international disputes. The constitution has long been understood as barring the dispatch of Japanese troops into the field to help an ally who has been attacked.

Mr Koizumi himself favours scrapping the ban, and he said this week that the Japanese public must understand that while the SDF will not use military force, "it will engage in activities even if they entail danger". The Japanese government wants to avoid a repeat of 1991, when it provided only money, not soldiers, to the anti-Saddam coalition, earning widespread international criticism.

Even so, Japan's role will be low-profile: assistance with logistics, medical and humanitarian aid, and intelligence gathering. According to Japanese press reports, Tokyo is sending warships to the Arabian sea later this week on surveillance and electronic intelligence-gathering duties.

These tasks fall under a seven-point legislative plan that Mr Koizumi is sending to the Japanese parliament. But although the measure has broad domestic support, some politicians are urging greater United Nations involvement in preparations for the offensive. Any suggestion by Mr Koizumi along these lines will be resisted by President Bush, who has insisted time and again that America's hands must be free.

Mr Koizumi is promising fresh action to prop up the Japanese economy, whose anaemic performance is a powerful factor, dragging the world towards recession.

Japan is also cracking down on terrorist funding, after the freeze announced on Monday by the American President of the assets of 27 individuals, groups and charitable organisations that are alleged to be involved in terrorism.