WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Japan's Defense Minister Taro Kono on Tuesday defended Tokyo's decision to send forces to the Middle East to help ensure the safety of merchant ships, saying it was in the Japanese people's interest, despite a new poll showing significant opposition to the mission.
Two Japanese patrol planes left Japan on Jan. 11 and are expected to start operations in the Middle East from Jan. 20. A Japanese destroyer is also expected to depart Japan for the region on Feb. 2 and begin patrols later in the month.
A poll by Kyodo news agency showed 58.4% of those surveyed opposed the deployment and opposition parties in Japan have called for its cancellation, given heightened tensions in the region between the United States and Iran.
Asked about the poll during a visit to Washington, Kono noted that nearly 90% of the crude oil imported by Japan came from the Middle East and more than 80% passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has threatened to mine the Strait in the past.
"So it is (in) Japanese people's interests to protect the safety of the navigation in the area," Kono told reporters at the Pentagon.
In May and June 2019, several attacks took place on international merchant vessels in the region, including the Japanese-owned tanker Kokuka Courageous, which the United States and other nations blamed on Iran.
Tehran denied the allegations.
The Japanese operations in the Middle East are set to cover high seas in the Gulf of Oman, the northern Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
"We are committed to send (Japan's) Self-Defense Forces for information gathering," Kono said.
The United States is already leading a multi-national naval mission in the region aimed at deterring Iranian attacks. Called the International Maritime Security Construct, the mission includes Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.
Kono cited restrictions in Japan's constitution when asked if it might join the U.S.-led mission.
"But we will be closely communicating with the United States as (an) ally," he said.
Kono said he told U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper that Tokyo would make "persistent diplomatic efforts to ease the tension and stabilise the situation in the region." He did not say what kinds of actions Japan might take toward those goals.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing by Tom Brown)