By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo
Japan's Cabinet has given its backing to new legislation which would create a defence ministry.
Japanese troops are becoming more visible overseas
At present, Japan's armed forces are under the control of an agency which reports to the prime minister.
The proposals, if passed by parliament, would expand the role of the country's armed forces and give the defence minister new powers.
After World War II Japan renounced the right to war as a means of settling international disputes.
Its soldiers, sailors and air-crews exist only to ensure the country's self-defence, according to the Japanese constitution.
Japan's constitution currently renounces the use of force
This has been stretched to allow self-defence troops
1992 law allowed troops to join UN and relief work overseas
2003 law said troops could go to non-combat zones in Iraq
PM Koizumi wants to give Japan even greater powers
But the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, has expanded that role, sending troops to take part in peace-keeping operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Special laws had to be passed before the soldiers could be deployed.
Now his cabinet has approved draft legislation that would make those activities part of the regular duties of the Self-Defence Forces, as Japan's armed forces are called.
As well as peace-keeping, these would include removing mines, transporting Japanese nationals abroad and providing logistic support for other military operations in areas surrounding Japan.
The proposed legislation would give the new head of the defence ministry the same powers as other cabinet members, including the right to decide how to spend the department's budget and the right to propose new legislation.
Japan says the changes would mean its armed forces would be managed in the same way as those in other countries.
Another step being considered is the revision of the pacifist clause in the country's constitution that would recognise Japan's right to maintain armed forces and play a bigger role in global security.
But that will be much harder to push through.