Haunted by history, Japan agonizes over a new military role

October 28, 1990|By John E. Woodruff

TOKYO — Tokyo-- Two weeks of debate on a plan to send 2,000 lightly armed troops to the Persian Gulf area for non-combat duty suggest that the world may be asking the wrong questions about Japan's future role in the world.

For more than a decade, foreign diplomats and commentators have wondered aloud when Japan would awaken to a role in geopolitics that is comparable with its position as the world's second most powerful economy.

But two weeks ago, when the Diet, Japan's parliament, began debate on Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu's United Nations Peace Cooperation bill, it quickly became clear that many Japanese -- perhaps most -- see the issue in very different terms.

"What the Japanese army did in the 1930s and in World War II was not just a matter of what happened in China and in Southeast Asia," Zenko Nishikawa said as the debate entered its second week.

"Many Japanese families suffered very much in those years, and many people my age have been brought up by mothers who found all kinds of ways to warn that the military must never again be allowed to dominate the society that way," he said.

To Mr. Nishikawa -- and, it is increasingly clear, to millions of other Japanese -- the issue is not what role Japan can fill in world strategic equations but what kind of place Japan will be.

For U.S. and European diplomats who have spent years trying to nudge Japan into a more activist international role, the gulf crisis -- with Japan's access to badly needed oil at stake -- seemed like a tailor-made chance to move Japan toward participation in international peace forces.

Many Japanese conservatives, including several in Mr. Kaifu's governing party, have reacted much the same way, pressing to use this opening to loosen decades of constraints imposed when the U.S. occupation wrote pacifism into Japan's new constitution after World War II.

But it is not clear that Japan, as a society, feels that global strategic issues are part of its place in the world.

"There never was much sense of urgency here about Iraq takingover Kuwait," a Western diplomat said last week. "Part of that is because the Japanese system doesn't automatically activate the prime minister to go on the tube and arouse the people in time of crisis. But part of it also is a widespread complacency that may come from the experience of learning in the 1970s that, in the end, the oil-producing countries have nobody to sell their oil to but the oil-consuming countries, a sense among Japanese that 'they' need 'us' as much as the other way around."

Polls taken as the Diet debate got under way have increasingly suggested that millions of Japanese see Mr. Kaifu's plan as the first step onto a slippery slope that leads back toward a bigger and bigger Japanese role in world military events and with it a bigger and bigger role for the military in Japanese society.

One poll earlier this month, by Nihon Keizai Shimbun, found that 48 percent of Japanese opposed any form of overseas use of the Self-Defense Forces, as Japan's military is known. About 28 percent were prepared to see the forces dispatched to international peacekeeping operations, but only if they were unarmed and kept away from combat. The bill now under debate found support from only 23 percent of those polled.

To a considerable extent, that apprehension grows out of the phrasing of the bill itself.

On the one hand, the bill asserts that Japanese forces sent overseas will work only within the context of international efforts and only "without the use of force or the threat of force," as required by the pacifist clause in the constitution. Mr. Kaifu and others have promised that the troops would carry no more than sidearms or rifles.

On the other hand, the bill seems vague about how such international forces should be invoked and organized and about the specific roles Japanese troops can perform, thereby opening the prospect that future crises might draw in Japanese contingents far bigger and far more prominent than the 2,000 proposed for the gulf.

Public apprehension here seems to be reinforced, rather than offset, by a growing awareness among Japanese that, with the Cold War ending, powerful allies expect Japan to move eventually into a steadily growing military role in helping to deal with regional outbreaks.

After more than two months of tensions with Washington, while his Cabinet worked out first its $8 billion total contribution to the gulf effort and then its bill to dispatch forces to the gulf and future crisis spots, Mr. Kaifu's own approval ratings in the polls have fallen to the 40-percent range, after holding well above 50 percent for most of his first 15 months in office.

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