JAPANESE Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu may have put his political future on the line in proposing that members of Japan's Self-Defense Force be sent to the Persian Gulf in noncombatant jobs. The proposal, approved this week by the Cabinet, will be fiercely assailed in the Diet. Its defeat would probably require Kaifu to call new elections. Kaifu's profile in courage reveals how much pressure Japan's government is under from the United States to pull an oar in the Gulf, rather than just donate a paddle. He is likely no more eager than any other postwar Japanese leader has been to raise, at home or abroad, the specter of Japanese militarism.
Opponents contend that the plan violates Japan's Constitution, which restricts the nation's armed forces to a defensive role. Postwar governments have refused to send any military elements beyond Japan's defensive perimeter. The policy enjoys a strong mandate from a populace mindful of World War II's horrors, and it reassures Japan's neighbors.
Yet 45 years have passed since V-J Day, and - as in Germany - Japan's government, society, and, indeed, national character have changed. So has its stature and responsibilities: Japan is an economic superpower with commensurate world obligations. (And, Japan imports 70 percent of its oil from the Mideast.)
Nobody wants to see Japan revived as the scourge of Asia. But that prospect is remote. Modern Japan's imperative shouldn't be to protect the world or itself from the Banzai! spirit, but rather to continue the process of full integration into the world community, sharing the nations' burdens as well as privileges.
Kaifu's proposal - under which largely unarmed Japanese military personnel in the Gulf would be limited to communications, transportation, maintenance, medical, and similar duties - is a measured, useful, nonthreatening (and, we think, constitutional) step in that direction.