By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - The Algeria hostage crisis has given ammunition to Japanese conservatives keen to ease limits on military actions abroad, but Japan's post-World War Two pacifist legacy is forcing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to tread carefully.
Abe, already labeled a right-wing nationalist, seems wary of upsetting volatile voters - whose top priority is reviving a stagnant economy - by appearing to use the deaths of seven Japanese to push his broader, hawkish security agenda.
Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Political Studies in Tokyo, said the crisis would bolster the argument of Abe and those in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who want to expand the role of the Self-Defence Forces, as Japan's military is known.
"But they shouldn't overplay this game ... because it might backfire," he said.
Japan has for decades been stretching the limits of its 1947, U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution - which if strictly interpreted bans even the maintenance of a military. It has dispatched troops for international peace keeping operations and to Iraq on a non-combat reconstruction mission in 2004-2006.
But changes have been politically contentious, while signs Japan is flexing its military muscle have the potential to upset rival China, where memories of Tokyo's wartime aggression run deep and which is now locked in a territorial row with Japan.
The seven Japanese were among the 38 mostly foreign hostages killed during the four-day siege of a desert gas plant complex in Algeria by Islamic militants and another three Japanese nationals are missing.
Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera ordered a government plane to bring home the seven surviving employees of engineering firm JGC Corp and the bodies, the first time a military plane has gone on such a distant mission.
But under the existing law governing the SDF, military personnel can only be sent to evacuate citizens if the area is deemed safe. Even then, land transport is banned and the use of weapons to protect the civilians is restricted.
The LDP, which proposed easing those stringent conditions two years ago, says the hostage crisis had underscored the need for change.
"Under the current SDF law, if an upheaval occurs overseas and our citizens make it at risk to their lives to airports or ports, military personnel cannot go there unless their safety is assured," the party's No.2 executive, former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, told reporters this week.
BROADER AGENDA, WARY TONE
On Tuesday, the LDP and its smaller coalition partner agreed to speed up talks on the topic with an eye to submitting changes to parliament in a session that begins on Monday.
Abe and his top government spokesman, however, have sounded a warier tone out of what analysts said was consideration not only for public opinion ahead of an upper house poll in July but for its more dovish coalition partner, the New Komeito Party.
"For troops who must make life or death decisions in a tenth of a second to be forced to act within the limits of the law or risk violating, it is a harsh restriction," Abe said in a TV interview late on Tuesday, referring to the law's restrictions to use of weapons by troops on overseas rescue missions.
"But we have no idea of using this incident to try to pass such a law (revising this)," Abe added. "There are various problems including information gathering so after investigating it will be necessary to consider how to resolve such problems."
Abe and like-minded conservatives, in fact, want to go beyond the piece-meal approach of past governments in expanding the military's role abroad to implement a broader agenda that would break what they consider the shackles of a pacifist regime imposed on Japan by the United States after World War Two.
Included in that agenda is a push to re-interpret the constitution to allow Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defence, or coming to the aid of an ally under attack, and eventually, to revise the constitution's pacifist Article Nine to make clear Japan's right to maintain a standing military.
Shorter term, Abe's government is embarking on the first revision of U.S.-Japan defence cooperation guidelines in 15 years and a make-over of its basic defence policy to better cope with a rising China. But precisely because of that well-known agenda, Abe seems for now intent on going slow.
"Abe knows he has that image (as a right-wing hawk) and he is wary of appearing to use this incident in such a way," said Katsuhiko Nakamura, executive director at think tank Asian Forum Japan. "He is going to be very careful about how he responds and I think that is reflected in his choice of words."
Close Abe aide Isao Iijima, who advises the premier on political strategy, said it was premature for Abe to push his broader security agenda since the election win that propelled the LDP back to power was mainly a vote against its rivals.
"Seventy-five percent of the people didn't like either Mr. Abe or the LDP," Iijima told Reuters in an interview. "The Abe cabinet has a responsibility to take into account the view of that 75 percent," he said. "I think Mr. Abe understands that. So constitutional revision is far off."
(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Nick Macfie)