Naval operations began in 2001, but were suspended late last year after the political opposition blocked their extension in parliament.

Japan's defence role

Last month, Tokyo announced it will end its air support for US-led coaltion forces in Iraq by the end of the year.

The Iraq and Afghan missions have tested the limits of Japan's so-called pacifist constitution and divided public opinion.

Opposition groups have continuously argued that the constitution should be adhered to and that the country should not be part of "American wars".

The charter, written in 1947 by the US, forbids the armed forces from carrying out anything but defensive missions, but previous governments had been trying to revise legislation allowing for a more active defence policy.