The move reflects concern among some Japanese leaders that Japan is falling behind in security and weapons technology, even amid potential threats from China and North Korea.

A proposed change in the arms-export ban would probably trigger widespread debate within Japan's government, as well as opposition from Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Many members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan view the weapons policy as a pillar in the nation's pacifist defense posture.

But signs are growing that Maehara and other officials might be seeking a more muscular approach to defense, even as Tokyo tightens its alliance with the United States. Maehara emphasized that reconsideration of the export ban is not connected to a recent spat with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea. The newly appointed foreign minister instead mentioned Japan's desire to participate in multination technology projects - something it cannot do under its "three principles" policy, which bans arms exports.

"The trend in the world today is for various countries participating in joint development to bring together their technology in order to develop better equipment at a cheaper cost," Maehara said.

In the interview with a reporter and editor from The Washington Post, Maehara also called on China to maintain a responsible presence in the region, adding that he remains "concerned" about its rapid military expansion.

Japan has complained repeatedly about recent behavior by its neighbor, which remains its top trade partner. The latest territorial dispute flared after a Chinese trawler rammed two Japanese coast guard boats near the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese. Raising pressure during the standoff, China restricted exports of rare-earth elements necessary for the production of major Japanese products, such as batteries and hybrid cars.

There is also the matter of differences regarding Iran. Japan withdrew from an oil-drilling project in Iran this month, bowing to U.S. pressure to impose sanctions over Tehran's nuclear development program. Since Japan's Inpex Corp. backed away from the Azadegan oil field project, however, China National Offshore Oil Co. has worked to fill the void.

"That portion that Japan gave up was taken up by China," Maehara said.

Japan's ban on weapons exports dates to 1967, when then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato established the three principles, prohibiting arms deals with communist bloc countries, countries subject to embargo under U.N. resolutions and countries involved in international conflicts.

Nine years later, those three principles were tightened into a near-absolute ban on weapons exports - though exceptions are made for one-on-one dealings with the United States.

At a meeting in Hanoi this week, Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa expressed his desire for a major overhaul of the three principles. The perfect opportunity, he said, will come at the end of the year, when Japan reviews its national defense posture.

"We should not just sit and watch domestic defense production bases and technological platforms deteriorate in a situation in which we are bound hand and foot," Kitazawa told reporters, according to the Mainichi Daily News.

The move would be well received in Washington, which views an easing of the embargo as an opportunity for greater cooperation in joint projects with the United States and Europe.

"Flexibility in Japan's approach would offer some greater opportunities in alliance cooperation, particularly things like ballistic missile defense," a senior U.S. defense official said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he could speak freely. "So obviously, any flexibility on Japan's part is something that would be welcomed."

Earlier this year, an advisory panel to Kan argued that Japan's weapons ban caused problems for its defense industry and ultimately made Japan reliant on expensive weapons imports. But Kan said Tuesday that he does not want to revise the three principles.

The defense debate reflects broader questions in Tokyo about how to deal with growing threats in the region. The Senkaku d