TOKYO — AS the US and Japan "reaffirm" their security alliance in a summit here April 17, it is growing clear that defense officials in both countries have converted adversity into advantage - at least from their perspective.
The two governments are broadening and deepening their alliance, which already links the world's two largest economies. Given what has happened in Japan in recent months, including the largest protests against the US military in a quarter century, the steps being taken are turning earlier expectations on their head.
"We are very surprised at the remarkable turn of events," observes Kazuyoshi Umemoto, director of the US-Japan treaty division in Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The US has agreed to return roughly 12,000 acres of the land it controls it controls on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, where the calls for an American withdrawal are loudest. But it has also concluded a long-sought agreement on logistical assistance from Japan's military during peacetime and won a Japanese agreement to review guidelines on how the two nations will cooperate in a military crisis in Asia.
This final item has long been a politically explosive issue in Japan, because the country's Constitution, drafted by the US after World War II, renounces force as a means of resolving international disputes. Furthermore, a large number of pacifists - who still carry remorseful memories of the war - watch vigilantly for a resurgence of Japanese militarism.
The government has interpreted the Constitution to mean that it may prepare to defend itself but not to engage in "collective security." In effect, the Japanese have refused to consider how to help US forces respond to a crisis.
The defense pact the two countries signed in 1960, the keystone of the alliance, specifies that a purpose of the treaty is the "maintenance of international peace and security" in the region, and critics of the alliance have pointed to Japan's inability to assist in this task.
These critics have long noted that the alliance is simply too good a deal for the Japanese - it guarantees US protection, but demands little more than cash in return. The "reaffirmation" now under way may change this dynamic.
Some members of Japan's Defense Agency have wanted for several years to review the guidelines on defense cooperation, drawn up in 1978, because they believe the country needs to do more to fulfill its responsibilities. "On the Japanese side," says a government official involved in security, "we clearly understand the need to review the guidelines."
Mr. Umemoto says this process could prompt a review of the ban on "collective security," which would free Japanese troops to assist US forces abroad, most likely in a logistical role. Within two or three years, adds Umemoto, "some of the very restrictive interpretations" - official readings of the Constitution that bar collective-security arrangements - "may be adjusted to a new reality."
One reason these changes are coming about is the September rape of an Okinawan girl by three US servicemen, which crystallized decades of frustration on the southern island and generated significant opposition to the US military presence across Japan.
Defense officials and political leaders in both countries were galvanized by the event, and it initially seemed that public and political support for the alliance had been irreparably undermined. But when Japanese defense planners considered their options, says Umemoto, "we ended up concluding that the US-Japan alliance was the only alternative."
Perhaps more important, traditional political opposition to the American role in Japan and to Japan's military in general has crumbled in the past two years. The flagging popularity of Japan's Socialists, who long prevented discussion of security issues, has created opportunities for defense planners who want to solidify the US-Japan relationship.
Among senior politicians, says Umemoto, "a kind of consensus has emerged that we have to address seriously what we will do in a crisis."
There is an air of accomplishment on the American side. One US official notes that change, in Japan, has been described as the accumulation of nuance. "Well," he adds with wry satisfaction, "we're accumulating nuances."