Japan's Checkbook War

`MCARTHUR got exactly what he wanted.'' With these words a Harvard scholar on Japan sums up the irony in modern Japan's intense resistance to the use of military force except for territorial defense. If Japan is the leading conscientious objector among major powers - expressed currently in its refusal to join the military coalition fighting Saddam Hussein - an American proconsul, dictating postwar Japan's ``peace constitution,'' helped make it so. As the coalition forces prepare for what appears to be an imminent ground and sea assault, many Americans are upset by Tokyo's refusal to support the Gulf war - especially as Japan is heavily dependent on imported oil. Even Japan's financial contributions in support of the coalition - $4 billion last fall, and now a proposed $9 billion more - are restricted to noncombat expenditures. Tokyo's insistence that its yen not buy bullets may strike Americans as ludicrously punctilious when young men and women are putting their lives at risk for a cause the United Nations has endorsed.

But many Japanese are proud that their constitution forbids force except in self-defense. That restriction may seem impractical in a world that still harbors Saddams, but it should hardly be scorned.

US-Japan relations can only be harmed by American badgering of Japan to take a more active part in the Gulf crisis. Japanese politics will not permit it. As it is, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu will likely pay a heavy political price if he succeeds in driving his $9 billion pledge through parliament.

It's far from clear that it is even in America's long-term interest, or that of other nations, to nudge Japan toward increased militarism. Japan's East Asian neighbors, who suffered at its hands in World War II, are emphatically opposed to any such trend. Japan plays a major role in its own regional defense; perhaps that is the most the world should wish for from Japan's military.

Pique (and perhaps envy) over Japan's noncombatant status shouldn't blind critics to the significant steps Tokyo has taken in recent years in acknowledgment of the nation's emergence as an economic power. Japan is the world's leading provider of foreign aid, and has been active in easing the third-world debt crisis.

Japan's leadership knows that the country must not be regarded as a free-rider on other nations' suffering. It would be better if Japan's support in the current crisis appeared less grudging and fastidious. Still, the checks it has written have been large, especially given its people's deep misgivings about the war. Let's not forget that.

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