Pacifist Japan beefs up military

The island nation's neighbors watch closely, but not all experts see reason for alarm.

A rusty blue-green North Korean spy ship rigged to look like a squid boat has been a fantastic curiosity for months. Some 10,000 Japanese a day visit the boat, hauled from the ocean floor where it sank after being chased from Japanese into Chinese waters.

The small craft is not impressive. But it is useful for a Japan with a new and increasingly popular message: In a tough neighborhood and a dangerous world, Japan needs a strong military profile.

"I support a stronger defense," says a young leasing-company clerk visiting at lunch hour. "I'm sad to say we need to defend against kidnapping. But whatever we do, North Korea and China will say we are aggressive."

For the first time since 1945, Japan is openly planning a beefier military. Moreover, for a staunchly pacifist nation, home to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a debate about having nuclear weapons, unthinkable a few years ago, is now thinkable.

Japanese defense plans include long-range refueling for fighter jets, new transport planes, and a joint US-Japanese $7 billion sea-based missile system. A Defense Agency "white paper" issued last week calls for new antiballistic missile defenses, special commando units, and for Japan to regularly join UN peacekeeping operations, as it is preparing to do in Iraq.

More striking is the nuclear talk. Tokyo's No. 2 defense chief was sacked in 2001 for mentioning nuclear weapons. But things have changed. This spring Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said it was "not necessarily unconstitutional" for Japan to use "limited" tactical nuclear weapons in its defense.

The military issue runs deeply into how Japanese identity has, and hasn't, emerged in the past half-century. Will Japan become a "normal nation" - to use the oft-cited term of art?

The issue also runs directly through "the bilateral relationship," or US-Japan relations - which have set the tone for decades. (The US, which bases 50,000 troops here, has long urged greater self defense for Japan; but not a nuclear capability.)

Changes in Japan echo loudly in Asia. With a question mark today on whether Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will visit Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which holds the ashes of soldiers designated as war criminals, Japan's moves are fodder for suspicion in China and the Koreas. They endured a brutal occupation long before Pearl Harbor, which Americans think of as the start of World War II.

Yet does a defense build up in the Japan of 2003 represent a threat?

Given current realities, the answer is a resounding "no," Asian experts say.

Japan is closely integrated into an Asian economy; and there is no "imperial drive" in Tokyo - that led Japan to colonize and dominate Asia from Manchuria to Burma.

In practical military terms, Japan lacks what is known as "strategic depth." It could not sustain a war. Its army is the smallest in the region. Japan will reduce its force to 150,000 next year. South Korea has 400,000 troops; North Korea has a million; China, two million. "Japan can't invade anybody," as a US military strategist notes. In an era of missiles Japan is vulnerable as a target. "Four nuclear devices, lobbed on Osaka or Tokyo, could destroy most of Japan's industrial base," notes the US official.

"Japan's militarization is not a threat," argues Brad Glosserman, director of research at CSIS in Honolulu. "There is no power projection capability. There is no political will - apart from a few very isolated individuals - to use its force for anything other than defense. There is certainly no public support for such an assertive foreign policy."

What's partly behind the military push is a "reluctant realism," Mr. Glosserman argues - a conclusion that "a world order ruled by international law, rather than force, was pretty idealistic."

While nuclear talk has emerged in Tokyo, and while it is acknowledged that Japan could build a weapon in months, analysts say this is unlikely. Mostly, the nuclear question has been raised in relation to North Korea and its nuclear threat, they say. A Japanese bomb would radically change the nation's relations with everyone, they say.

"Especially if the Japanese tried to develop a nuclear capability, there would be an overwhelmingly negative reaction by the entire international community," argues Ronald Montaperto, dean of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. "Washington would face particular pressure for allowing such an event to transpire."

"Until the US shows it cannot defend Japan, there is little reason why Japan would go nuclear," one US administration official states.

Beijing has long expressed official displeasure at Japan's perceived unwillingness to squarely face its wartime past. The issue arose just this week, in the midst of a normalization anniversary. State-run Chinese news agencies revealed that buried Japanese World War II mustard gas containers had harmed nearly 40 people. Japan sent officials and a medical team to the area, and issued an apology.

In some foreign policy circles in Beijing, however, old worries are ending. "The Chinese are a lot more rational about Japan these days," says a Japanese specialist with a Beijing think tank. "We understand they aren't any longer a threat." Should Japan use North Korea as a pretext to develop nuclear weapons, however, "that would be a problem."

Yet even if a threatening Japan seems illogical, some Japanese pacifists argue that history can take wild turns. If the economy sinks very bad, if nationalist voices become louder - or if Japan should suddenly redefine US relations - the situation could change.

Public worries over North Korea are not to be discounted, they say. Japanese have long supported Article 9 of its post-war constitution, which forbids any out-of-area military actions. But public support for the article has turned quite ambiguous.

"Japan is not half as stable and orderly as [the US] thinks it is," says Masao Kunihiro, a publisher in Japan. "Depending on the vicissitudes, the circumstances on the Korean peninsula especially, you could see a dangerous Japan."

"We are no longer in our idealistic period," he adds. "There isn't an enthusiasm for Article 9, and many of the bad old feelings from our pre-war militarism are very much alive. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist. My house in Kobe was burned during the war. But I'm like a dodo bird. I feel that pacifism here is on the edge of extinction."

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