An initial Japanese Defense Ministry review concluded on Friday that its armed forces should be able to "deter and respond to ballistic missiles," Reuters reported.
However, officials said this did not mean they were calling for a "pre-emptive" attack capability, which is a politically loaded term particularly given Japan's past militaristic history.
Under the conservative leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has been gradually moving away from its longstanding pacifist defense posture. The decision to reassess the island nation's security needs comes as North Korea is advancing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and as China has grown increasingly comfortable projecting its military might around the region.
The Defense Ministry is slated to issue its complete findings from the security review no later than the end of 2013.
At present, Japan has some strike capabilities. Still, in order to be able to neutralize North Korea's road-transportable missiles, it would require more fighter planes and knowledge of the missiles locations. That intelligence would likely have to come from the United States, according to analysts.
Some in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party have called for acquiring offensive missile systems that could be used to prevent an imminent North Korean missile strike. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, however, said if any such cruise missiles are obtained, they would never be used preemptively, only in retaliation, the New York Times reported.
South Korea on Friday cautioned Japan to focus on maintaining regional peace, Kyodo News reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young told journalists that Seoul hopes "Japan works to maintain stability in this region."