YOKOSUKA, Japan --- Rarely have Maritime Self-Defense Force ships garnered this much attention. On April 30, the Izumo helicopter carrier — one of Japan’s two largest and arguably most controversial naval vessels — set off for a three-month deployment and this month it conducted two quadrilateral naval exercises over a two-week span — first in the South China Sea and then in the Indian Ocean.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump are scheduled to inspect the Kaga — the other vessel in the Izumo-class — in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
On top of that, “Aircraft Carrier Ibuki,” a military thriller based on a manga series of the same name featuring a fictitious, though strikingly similar vessel to the Izumo ships, hits theaters on Friday.
The rising profile of the 19,500-ton flat-topped helicopter carriers is perhaps a reflection of the increasing awareness of the ministry’s future plans for the vessels: Their conversion into de facto aircraft carriers with the apparent purpose of keeping China in check.
Last December, the Abe administration included plans to remodel its Izumo-class vessels so they can carry F-35B stealth fighters under the National Defense Guidelines and Medium-Term Defense Program.
Since their development nearly a decade ago, speculation had swirled among the defense community that the Izumo ships could eventually be upgraded to accommodate fixed-wing aircraft to effectively become aircraft carriers — a type of vessel that has long been taboo in Japan’s postwar defense posture.
But along with raising questions over whether the Izumo’s upgrade will remain within the confines of the country’s long-standing “exclusively defense-oriented policy,” there seems to be a lack of consensus about the exact role that’s being plotted for the upgraded ships, aside from countering China. (end of excerpt)
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