TOKYO - Japan on Friday ordered two warships to join an anti-piracy mission off Somalia in which its armed forces could face combat abroad for the first time since World War II.
The United States, European countries and Japan's regional rival China have already deployed naval vessels to fend off pirates behind more than 100 attacks on ships last year in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
The two Japanese destroyers with a total of 400 crew would set sail Saturday for the Gulf of Aden to protect cargo ships near the Suez Canal that links Europe with Asia, the defense ministry said.
"Piracy off Somalia is a threat to Japan and the international community," Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said. "It is an important duty for the Self-defense Forces to protect Japanese lives and assets."
The government submitted a bill later Friday that would widen the scope of force its military personnel can use against pirates and allow them to protect foreign vessels and nationals as well as Japanese.
It remained unclear when the bill would be debated or voted on. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which controls the upper house, said it would discuss the bill internally early next week, Jiji Press reported.
The maritime mission has divided public opinion in Japan, which under the post-war pacifist constitution permits its soldiers abroad to use force only for self-defense and to protect Japanese nationals.
Some 60 demonstrators, including survivors of the US atomic bombs, rallied at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park against the deployment. Protesters also said they would stage demonstrations Saturday when the ships leave Kure port.
Japan's major past overseas missions -- including in Iraq, near Afghanistan, and as UN peacekeepers -- have been largely for logistical and support purposes such as refuelling, transport and reconstruction.
Since World War II "we have never been shot at with bullets or shot bullets ourselves" in combat, said a defense ministry official.
If Japanese personnel fired at pirates on the high seas, "it would be the first time in an overseas mission" since the war, said the official, who was speaking to reporters on condition he would not be named.
The two destroyers -- the 4,650-ton Sazanami and 4,550-ton Samidare -- will each carry two patrol helicopters and two speedboats, to be used by members of the navy's commando-style Special Boarding Unit.
The ships are expected to arrive in waters near the Suez canal in two or three weeks. The period of deployment has not been fixed, Hamada said, but he told reporters that "six months could be an idea."
Recent newspaper polls have shown growing public support for the anti-piracy mission, with a survey this week by the top-selling Yomiuri Shimbun showing 61 percent of respondents in favor and 27 percent against.
Under the current rules of engagement, the two Maritime Self-defense Force ships, carrying a combined total of about 400 sailors and coastguard officers, would protect only Japanese ships, nationals and cargo.
In the new legislation proposed by Prime Minister Taro Aso's Liberal Democratic Party, Japanese troops would be permitted to fire on the hulls of approaching pirate boats that refuse repeated orders to stop -- including those that attack foreign vessels.
"I hope the legislation will be approved as soon as possible," Hamada said, to allow Japan to "assume our responsibility in the international community."
Around 2,000 Japanese ships -- including tankers carrying vital oil shipments from the Middle East -- sail through Somali waters and the Suez canal every year. The nation's shipping industry has voiced alarm over the potential cost of adopting safer but longer routes around Africa.
Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said Japan would also use foreign aid to help stabilise Somalia and boost the coast guards of nearby countries, stressing that "what is important is to eliminate the root cause of piracy."