Time for Japan to join the fight

July 23, 2002|By Robert Schroeder

WASHINGTON -- Poor Japan.

The World Cup's over, the home team lost. The economy is still on the ropes, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's erstwhile sky-high ratings have been brought low. Kids are beating up "salarymen" for fun. If there were ever a country in need of a shot in the arm, Japan would now be it.

So, herewith, an immodest proposal to get Japanese juices flowing: Make the country's military part of the global war on terrorism.

But wait. Isn't that already the case? The Japanese government would have you believe so. And it wouldn't be wholly wrong. Thanks to a law passed by the Diet, or parliament, in October 2001, Japan's Self-Defense Forces have undertaken "logistical support" for U.S. and coalition ships near Afghanistan in the Indian Ocean.

To translate, then: Japan, one of the world's richest countries, with, incidentally, one of the world's best-equipped militaries, is helping to fight Osama bin Laden and company by ... refueling U.S. Navy vessels.

Were it not for Japan's special history as the bad guy of Asia during World War II, a weak role like this would be laughable at best and inexcusable at worst. But that history exists, and so does the great burden that comes with it.

Japan's constitution -- imposed, mind you, by the United States after the war -- forbids the use of force to settle conflict. Asian countries raise hackles every time beefing up Japan's military is discussed. Add it up and you get a rather impotent military, as conventional militaries go. That is, able to join coalitions and fight abroad.

Sept. 11 should have changed that. It did, to some extent. Tokyo called the terrorist attacks "unforgivable acts of violence" against "all humankind," and Japanese troops are now venturing into war zones for the first time since World War II. That fact alone is laudable -- it is one step closer to a "normal" portfolio. But it is not enough. The United States and its allies in this new war need Japan's help. And they need more than floating, Rising Sun-flagged gas stations.

But will it be forthcoming? The early signs are not good. The Japanese Defense Agency reportedly shot down an idea floated by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz for medical and engineering teams to go to Afghanistan. "Current laws" wouldn't permit it, according to a Japanese newspaper.

To be sure, this isn't the first time that the United States has asked its main Pacific ally to do more where defense is concerned. Indeed, there's been a steady drumbeat since the beginning of the Cold War. The Reagan administration's early 1980s nudging of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki to build up Tokyo's defensive capabilities is but one example.

Few bullets were fired in the Cold War, of course. But now there's a real war going on, against a crafty, invisible enemy that could strike (or regroup) anytime, anywhere. Even, arguably, in Japan's own backyard: the Philippines, say. Troops from Tokyo would sure come in handy in a raid against -- a hypothetical here -- an al-Qaida nest on Mindanao.

Sending Japanese troops abroad to fight would naturally take enormous domestic political change and require intensive Japanese diplomacy in Asia and elsewhere. (It would also take constitutional revision.) The problem is a matter of trust. Can Japan be trusted again with a real army? The answer, if recent history is any indication, is yes.

Japanese troops didn't run amok, raping and pillaging, on U.N. peacekeeping missions in the Golan Heights or in Cambodia. Ditto in East Timor and now the Indian Ocean. To state the obvious, the Self-Defense Forces are under civilian, not imperial, control. If it's democracy we're worried about, let's not forget that Japan's democratic credentials certainly trump those of other U.S. partners in the ongoing and past campaigns (Saudi Arabia comes to mind).

So, in the short term Japan could at least do more to help in Afghanistan, with engineering teams or what-have-you. Over the longer term, though, Japan needs to rethink its constitution and get rid of the "peace clause" once and for all.

Reorienting Japan's military isn't as exciting as soccer, granted. But seriously kicking the idea around? It's game time.

Robert Schroeder, a free-lance journalist in Washington, lived in Japan from 1992 to 1993 and has returned periodically to report and travel. He can be reached via e-mail at schroederr@hotmail.com.

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