Japan on Friday moved a step closer to sending its navy to piracy-plagued waters near Somalia, with Prime Minister Taro Aso instructing his cabinet to speed up preparations for a possible deployment.
Aso "told me to accelerate studies so that the Self-Defence Forces can take measures against piracy as soon as possible," Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters, referring to Japan's military.
A growing number of nations are sending navy ships to fight pirates near the lawless East African country, with Japan's neighbour and sometime rival China dispatching three vessels on Friday.
Japan has been pacifist since defeat in World War II. Under domestic law, the navy can only protect ships flying the Japanese flag or carrying Japanese passengers.
Aso, speaking with reporters late on Thursday, called for Japan to revise the law so it can also guard foreign vessels but held out the option of sending ships that for now have a limited role.
"Japan should take action in a hurry," Aso said.
"We had better consider revising the law, but that will take time. If we have to hasten things, then we should take a defensive posture on the sea."
Japan's opposition controls the less powerful upper house of parliament and has repeatedly held up legislation in hopes of forcing the unpopular Aso to call early elections.
Kyodo News, quoting unnamed sources, said the government hoped to send a destroyer in February.
Japanese forces have not fired a shot in combat since World War II. But the country has tried to take on a larger role in international security, notably through a reconstruction mission in Iraq.
China's dispatch of two destroyers and a supply ship mark the first time in recent history that Beijing has deployed vessels on a potential combat mission well beyond its territorial waters.
The UN Security Council has given nations a one-year mandate to act inside Somalia to stop the rampant piracy in the Gulf of Aden, part of the Suez Canal route from Europe to Asia.
Some shipping companies have chosen to travel around Africa, a longer and more expensive route, to avoid the increasingly brazen pirate attacks.