GOTEMBA, Japan (AP) — Japan put its army on display Tuesday in an annual exercise at the foot of Mount Fuji intended to showcase the nation's ability to defend itself and to drum up support for plans to give Japanese troops a broader role at home and abroad.
Designed more as a spectacle than a training opportunity, the exercises focus on a scenario in which Japan is attacked from the sea. As a narrator explained the attack to thousands of spectators in grandstands, a wide array of aircraft, artillery, tanks and helicopters fired on targets at the base of the scenic mountain, a powerful symbol of Japan itself.
This year's exercises involve 2,400 troops, 30 aircraft and 80 tanks and armored vehicles, which is fairly typical. They will continue for several days. The exercises, held since 1961, are the biggest event put on by Japan's army, called the Ground Self-Defense Forces, each year.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, in a written statement, said the exercises show Japan's resolve to meet "deepening uncertainties'" in the region and to be able to defend its own territory.
Though he did not go into specifics, Japan has been at a standoff with China for months over a group of small, uninhabited islands that both nations claim. The dispute over the islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, has soured relations between the two Asian giants and raised concerns in Tokyo that Japan must increase its military strength to meet China's growing power.
Onodera noted the need for Japan to upgrade its surveillance capabilities — primarily to keep a watch over Chinese activity around the islands — and said Japan's military will increasingly be called upon to join in international peace-keeping operations, the fight against piracy and bilateral activities with Japan's allies.
Japan has long relied on its main ally, the United States, to guarantee its defense. While Tokyo continues to look to Washington to play a big role in any contingency, both countries would also like to see Japan play a larger role in maintaining the Asian balance of power. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an outspoken conservative and China-policy hawk, has made strengthening the military one of his top policy goals. Abe specifically wants to ease constitutional restrictions on the military imposed after the war so that it can operate more freely.
Under Japan's postwar constitution, the military is limited to a strictly defensive role and cannot fight with its allies unless its own nation is under attack.
Abe's position has raised concerns among Japan's neighbors, who suffered at the hands of the Japanese military in World War II.
Tokyo's growing rivalry with Beijing has also generated fears that an incident near the islands could lead to an armed clash, or that the two countries could undermine stability in the region with an escalating arms race.