Japan Flexes Muscles in the Mirror

January 31, 1993

Japan is under foreign pressure to contribute more to world security but also to refrain from becoming a threat to its neighbors. It's a contradiction. Japan also is under pressure from its own citizens to exert more influence abroad and to hew scrupulously to constitutional pacifism. Another contradiction. The taboo on military action abroad remains. The taboo on discussing it is shattered.

Some politicians in each of the three major parties favor holding a great debate on Article 9 of the 1947 constitution, imposed by U.S. occupation authorities after World War II, which "forever renounces" war and prohibits arming. It is interpreted to allow a powerful self-defense force but forbid long-range capability or foreign assignment.

With the U.S. lowering its profile in East Asia and abandoning its major bases in the Philippines, Japan's Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa toured Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members talking up the need for regional security. Yet he assured these countries occupied brutally by Japanese forces during the early 1940s that Japan would never bully or threaten them again.

While he was away, faction opponents in the Liberal Democratic Party, including Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe, proposed rewriting or reinterpreting Article 9 to permit Japan to take part in global peace-keeping, which the U.S. and other distant nations seek. Mr. Miyazawa managed to tell the Japanese press corps following him in Brunei that he opposes the idea, but all three major parties are now internally discussing it.

Japanese people are deeply divided about this. Many want Japan to look after its economic interests more, with an independent foreign policy, and support U.S. initiatives less. Many were humiliated that Japan would not defend its own oil supply in the recent Persian Gulf War, and limits itself to 700 engineering troops restricted to unarmed roles in Cambodia, where Japan is trying to exert influence in a political settlement. But many more dread a re-militarization on the model of the 1930s and 1940s, remembering how brutal and disastrous that dictatorship was.

Amending the constitution would be a tedious process. Japan can more easily stretch its military role through reinterpretation than radically transform it. But at least the taboo on discussion has ended. The formerly unthinkable is now speakable. It is a discussion in which foreign governments, including the Clinton administration, are going to have to take part before very long.

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