Japanese military and coast guard ships held a drill on Friday to prepare for next month's mission to join multinational forces in the fight against pirates off the coast of Somalia. The Defense Ministry said the exercise took place off Hiroshima in western Japan. Japanese navy ships are expected to deploy to the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden in early March.
Friday's exercise involved one destroyer, a military helicopter, two patrol boats and about 180 navy and 60 coast guard personnel. Opposition lawmakers have criticized the deployment, saying it could draw Japan into military operations prohibited by its postwar pacifist constitution.
But Tokyo has argued that the battle against piracy is a crime-fighting operation rather than a military one and thus is not prohibited by Japanese laws. Japanese coast guard staff, who will be on board for the Somali mission, are vested with rights to arrest and investigate suspected pirates.
Japan's post-World War II charter limits its military to conducting defensive operations. The navy personnel on the anti-piracy mission are allowed to use weapons only in self-defense or under emergency circumstances.
Despite Japan's pacifist constitution, its navy has been increasingly operating far away from the country's shores. It began a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in 2001 to support US-led forces in Afghanistan.
Somali waters are now patrolled by more than a dozen warships from countries including Britain, France, Germany, Iran, the United States and China. South Korea has also ordered warships sent to the region to protect its vessels and crews from pirates. Tokyo has said its ships will be sent only to protect Japanese commercial vessels _ though the government says none have thus far been hijacked. Pirates have fired at three Japanese vessels. No one was injured.