TO be a conscientious objector is no bed of roses, especially in wartime. Aside from the cold stares of your neighbors, you may be given some unpleasant, dirty, or physically demanding job. You could be sent to the front, as a stretcher bearer under fire. In some countries, you are still put in jail. Japanese are beginning to ask whether, in the Middle East crisis, their position as a nation parallels that of a conscientious objector. A recent editorial in the newspaper Mainichi suggested as much. In private conversations, some senior government officials have taken up the idea.
They make the point, first, that Tokyo agrees totally with the United States and the vast majority of United Nations members as to Iraq's naked aggression against Kuwait. Second, they agree with President Bush that what is at stake is the whole shape of the post-cold war global community.
Third, they insist that while Japan must be seen to be making a sacrifice to support the international armed response to Iraqi aggression, that sacrifice has to be non-military.
The United States is bearing the brunt of the military burden. Britain, France, and some of the Arab nations are also participating in the multilateral force in the Gulf. Japan's contribution so far has been monetary - $2 billion to support the multilateral military effort and $2 billion to help the frontline states suffering the ripple effects of Iraq's action - Egypt, Jordan, Turkey.
But the Japanese recognize that they must contribute not only their money but also their hard work - the price of being a conscientious objector. Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu has announced the government's intention to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations in a non-combattant role. Personnel of Japan's Self Defense Force (SDF) will be the core of a new United Nations Cooperation Corps to be formed by Tokyo.
Some politicians in the ruling Liberal Democrat Party want their country to have a proper army, like Britain or France. They look on the expanded role proposed for the SDF as a step in this direction. They argue that SDF personnel should retain their military status even when assigned to the Cooperation Corps and that they should be allowed to carry sidearms even when performing non-combattant duties.
Advocates of the conscientious objector position passionately disagree. They recall that Japan's postwar ``peace'' constitution was born of the people's bitter disillusionment with militarism and its consequence, devastating defeat in World War II. Article Nine is quite explicit: ``The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.''
That's why the Japanese call their armed forces a Self Defense Force rather than an army or a navy. If this is not a subterfuge to get around the constitution, say the conscientious objectors, then the SDF must continue to be restricted by law to Japanese territory and its surrounding seas.
Most Japanese regard the US-Japan security treaty that provides for US troops and bases in Japan as the real guarantor of their security. The treaty suits the United States, which gains valuable bases for its own defense in depth. It also suits Japan's neighbors, who bitterly recall Japanese invasion during World War II. For them, the US involvement is a guarantee that Japan will never again become an independent military power.
That's been the framework of Japan's defense for the past 50 years, while these islanders reached unprecedented levels of economic growth and well-being. Throughout all these years, the Japanese never seriously asked themselves what price they had to pay for not having the kind of army or navy other nations did.
Suddenly, the Middle East crisis has focused public attention on the cost of being a conscientious objector. The non-combattant United Nations Cooperation Corps is one attempt to be seen to be shouldering that cost. Many think this is insufficient. Like air and water, the Japanese used to think that peace was free. They have long since learned that neither air nor water is free - and now they are finding out that neither is peace.