Rising sun

October 21, 2004

IN THE HEART of Tokyo, the 135-year-old Shinto shrine originally was built to honor a "peaceful country." But in the 20th century, the Yakusuni Shrine served as a focal point for the aggressive nationalism that led to World War II in the Pacific and then as a memorial to the 2.4 million Japanese who died in that and other conflicts, including 14 war criminals. And nowadays, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi making annual pilgrimages to Yakusuni -- the first Japanese prime minister to do so -- the shrine is a political flash point as militarism resurges in long officially pacifist Japan.

There has been much more than toothless symbolism to Mr. Koizumi's visits. Japan, with the world's second-largest economy and campaigning for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, is evolving rapidly away from the U.S.-written pacifist pledge embedded in Article 9 of its postwar constitution: "The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation."

The first break in Japanese pacifism came more than a decade ago with its participation in U.N. peacekeeping and relief missions, but the big steps were when Japan lent naval logistical support to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and sent noncombat troops to Iraq, deployments inconceivable just a few years ago.

FOR THE RECORD - Correction
In an editorial in Thursday's editions on rising Japanese militarism, the name of a Tokyo shrine, Yasukuni, was misspelled. The Sun regrets the error.

And this month, a national defense panel recommended that Japan loosen its long-standing ban on arms exports and its restrictions on its forces abroad, including allowing them to attack foreign missile bases -- recommendations likely to be approved. For the first time, a rewriting of Article 9's self-defense-only posture is under debate. There's resistance, but some Japanese opinion polls suggest that a majority of Japanese, particularly younger generations, favor that revision.

The United States, looking to more Japanese assistance in the war on terror and in providing regional security in Northeast Asia, is among the leading pressures pushing Japan to forsake its pacifism. Greater willingness to commit troops to battle is seen as a necessary commitment to gain that coveted Security Council seat. More immediately, the ending of Japan's 60-year-old reluctance to take up arms is being fueled by rising Japanese fears of North Korean nuclear missiles and of growing Chinese might infused with anti-Japanese sentiments.

A remilitarized Japan may serve U.S. interests -- particularly in countering North Korean and Chinese ambitions -- but it also could dangerously accelerate an arms race in Northeast Asia that would not be in the world's interest and that could easily turn into a nuclear arms race. A forceful Japan would be a double-edged sword.

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