Japan's biggest warship since World War II enters service

TOKYO (Bloomberg) - Japan's armed forces took control of their biggest warship since World War II, underscoring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's drive to strengthen the nation's military.

The Izumo, a 19,500-ton helicopter carrier, will improve the Self-Defense Forces' capacity to deal with submarines, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters after inspecting the ship at the Japan Marine United Corp. shipyard in the port city of Yokohama, near Tokyo. The 248-meter vessel can carry 470 personnel and as many as nine helicopters.

Since taking office in 2012, Mr Abe has reversed a decade-long decline in defense spending, lifted a ban on arms exports and reinterpreted the pacifist constitution to allow Japan to defend other countries. The defense push is adding to tensions with China over a territorial dispute that threatens the trade relationship between Asia's two largest economies.

"As well as having the capacity to search for submarines itself, it will be able to deal with submarines over a larger area as it's equipped with a lot of helicopters," Gen Nakatani said, adding that he wasn't referring to any specific country.

In May 2013, Japan said it detected submarines navigating under water close to territorial waters near Okinawa and Kagoshima prefectures. The government is seeking to toughen the measures Japan can legally take under its pacifist constitution in the event of a "gray zone" situation that doesn't amount to an armed attack on the nation.

A second ship of the same size and specifications is set to be introduced in early 2018.

The vessels are also capable of carrying Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. Ospreys can take off and land like a helicopter and fly long distances like a fixed-wing plane, giving the ships some of the capabilities of a small aircraft carrier.

Gen Nakatani stressed the Izumo's capacity to help out in disaster relief and peace-keeping operations.

"China has aircraft carriers," Gen Nakatani said. "The Izumo isn't designed to carry fixed-wing aircraft," he said, adding that Japan wasn't thinking of operating it like an aircraft carrier.