Weighing Japan's world role

It should hardly be surprising that nations - like individuals - develop at their own internal pace. Nations, after all, are collections of individuals. So to push countries to adopt policies that may make sense to an outsider, but not much sense within a society, seems ultimately self-defeating.

We mention all this because of criticism heard in some quarters in the United States about the rate of increase planned in defense spending by Japan. This year Japan increased its defense bill by 6.55 percent, after adjustment for inflation. Now, top government officials have agreed on an increase of 7 percent next year as part of a larger budget package that will include deep cuts of between 5 and 10 percent for most other departments.

Some US officials complain that the current and planned defense increases are inadequate. Japan's total defense budget, they note, still adds up to less than 1 percent of that nation's total output of goods and services, an amount far less than spent on defense by the US or its NATO allies.

Two observations seem in order:

* Japan should, of course, fill an important - and enlarging - role in world affairs consistent with its economic prowess. But such a role need not be military. Japan is the world's second-richest industrial nation. Yet, significant antimilitary attitudes continue to characterize a considerable part of Japanese public opinion, particularly among the young. For that reason alone Japan would seem on far stronger ground in continuing to concentrate on developing its industrial, high-technology base, while also helping other nations, especially third-world nations, to develop their own economies.

Such a continuing focus need not preclude modest increases in defense spending, as are now occurring.

* Japan faces an important election contest later this year. In November, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will select its leader, and thus, for all practical purposes, the nation's prime minister. The LDP has governed Japan for three decades. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone is now fighting to hold on to his post within the faction-dominated party.

Behind the scramble under way for the party's top leadership post, deeper issues are being fought out within the LDP. They involve the very direction of Japan's economy. Should the nation go the austerity route - i.e., cut government spending to help rein in deficits that are larger than US deficits in relation to gross national product? Japan, it's true, has a larger private savings pool than the US to help finance those deficits. Or should Japan increase government spending to keep the economy humming in case of a global trade slowdown in the months ahead?

For all of its manufacturing and trading skills, Japan has major social problems.

Among them: a public that in many cases has not shared in the wealth that has been accumulated by the nation's largest enterprises.

In other words, Japan, which has geared so much of its remarkable prosperity to global trade, especially with the US, needs to undertake some hard thinking about its future. Defense spending is only one part of that larger equation.

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