The Japanese government explained to ruling parties that non-combat cars and vessels equipped with lethal arms can be exported under the nation's stringent regulations on weapons exports, a source close to the matter said Sunday.

The explanation indicates that the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida might have altered its stance on the country's three principles on arms exports under the war-renouncing Constitution behind the scenes amid Russia's prolonged invasion of Ukraine.

So far, Japan has formally maintained its position that the three principles on overseas transfers of defense equipment and technology ban weapons exports, except for joint development or production projects with another nation.

But the government informed the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition party Komeito at their meeting in May that exports of defense apparatuses with lethal capabilities are possible because there are no explicit prohibitions, the source said.

Photo taken off Miyako Island, Okinawa Prefecture, southern Japan, on April 8, 2023, shows the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force minesweeper Shishijima. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Surveillance vehicles and minesweeping ships of the Self-Defense Forces, both armed with autocannons, were cited by the government as examples of such products, the source added.

Japan can export defense equipment outfitted with lethal weaponry to countries with which it has security cooperation as long as the purpose of their use is rescue, transportation, vigilance, surveillance or minesweeping, the source quoted the government as saying.

Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said the government will decide whether lethal weapons can be transferred "on a case-by-case basis," given the lack of mention of the issue in the implementation guidelines of the three principles.

In April, Kishida's LDP and Komeito began talks with the potential aim of revising weapon export restrictions, more than one year after Russia launched an aggression against Ukraine in February 2022.

While the LDP has been eager to relax the rules to bolster support for Ukraine, Komeito has been reluctant to change them, voicing fears that weapon sales to other nations could exacerbate armed conflicts and run counter to Japan's postwar pacifism.

Against a backdrop of the regulations, Japan has provided defense products to Ukraine, such as bulletproof vests and helmets, although Western countries have supplied military apparatuses, including missiles, tanks and fighter jets.

The Japanese government pledged to promote defense equipment exports to build a strong and sustainable industry in the field in its long-term National Security Strategy policy guidelines, updated in December 2022.

Related coverage:

Japan, U.S., Australia, Philippines vow to boost defense cooperation

Japan ruling parties hold 1st talks on easing weapon export rules

Japan to provide equipment to militaries of like-minded nations