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Japan moves toward a new assertiveness

Sense of insecurity and crisis prompts lawmaker and public

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 1999


In recent months Japan's government has:

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*Begun building its very own spy satellites.

*Allowed its warships to fire shots in anger for the first time since World War II.

*Partially approved a law allowing police to tap phones.

*Opened debate on whether to declare a flag and anthem evocative of the war as national symbols.

*Initiated the process of revising this country's pacifist Constitution.

One by one, these items barely register on the news seismometer. Taken together, they seem to signal the emergence of a more assertive Japanese state.

For many Japanese and many other Asians, a strong government in Japan inevitably recalls the run-up to World War II, when militarists acting in the name of the emperor created an intolerant, authoritarian regime.

Then isn't necessarily now, of course. But feelings of insecurity - internal and external - are prompting Japan's government to do things that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, such as all of the above. "Some non-Japanese people might say that the country is becoming more assertive, nationalistic, strong, et cetera," cautions Terumasa Nakanishi, a professor of international relations at Kyoto University. "As I see it, it's more that [a] sense of crisis has brought people together, making both politicians and the public alike think that they should 'do something.' "

Underlying this sense of crisis are reasons ranging from the historical to the psychological. Analysts say a decade of economic stagnation has created a yearning for decisive action and made an evolving sort of "neo-nationalism" more appealing.

The end of the cold war, combined with US insistence that Japan take more responsibility for policing Asia, has prompted the country to think anew about its defense. Driving the point home is nearby North Korea, which periodically rattles the Japanese with missile launches and other menacing gestures.

Within Japan, this decade has brought terrorist attacks by a religious group, rising juvenile crime rates, and a gradual fraying of the social order. The moribund economy has diluted old assumptions and models.

In politics, the '90s have meant turmoil, confusion, and widespread voter apathy. But now the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has more or less led the country since 1955, is assembling a mighty coalition that could dominate parliament until the next round of elections and perhaps beyond.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and other leaders seem to have noticed that tough-sounding rhetoric and appeals to national pride bring results. Voters in Tokyo, for instance, on April 11 elected an avowedly nationalistic writer and politician as their governor.

Shintaro Ishihara won that race because there was "no other choice," says Ronald Morse, an American academic and veteran Japan-watcher who teaches economics at Reitaku University outside Tokyo. Still, he adds, "what we have here is neoconservatives in Japan finally having a voice."

"There's a whole new wave of political concern about the priority of Japan's national security needs," he says. "It's a consciousness change."

Thanks in large part to North Korea, concerns over defense do seem paramount, but the state's rising assertiveness extends to other areas. The LDP and cooperative politicians have taken up initiatives that were once considered taboo.

For example, parliament held hearings this week on Japan's de facto national flag, the familiar red-and-white banner, and a short hymn to the emperor that functions as a national anthem. Both symbols have been in customary use since well before World War II - a time that they evoke for many older Japanese - but they have never been declared official symbols by the government, a step Mr. Obuchi wants to take now.

In recent decades, the discussion alone would have been considered too nationalistic and an unnecessary stirring up of painful World War II memories.