THE Gulf war has changed the context of US-Japan relations. American perceptions of Japan may not have changed all that much, but the Japanese response is different. It is no longer a matter of what concessions Japan should make to satisfy the Americans. A process of national introspection has begun, more profound than anything since World War II. Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu's pledge of $9 billion for US expenses in the war is winding its way through the Japanese Parliament, with the government assuring opposition parties that it will not be used for any lethal equipment.
Should Parliament defeat the bill, Mr. Kaifu and the Liberal Democrats' secretary-general, Ichiro Ozawa, are likely to resign. The US Congress will be in an uproar, and US-Japan relations will face their sternest postwar crisis. But regardless of that worst-case scenario, the crisis is already here.
The litany of American complaints against Japan is long, starting with the US's $50 billion trade deficit and Japan's alleged ``free ride'' on defense. Japan, its critics go on, claims its market is open, but shuts out foreign competition through bureaucratic and cultural barriers. Its aid to the third world benefits its own manufacturers. It is buying up American high-tech firms and choice bits of real estate. It slams the door on fellow-Asian refugees. To this list has now been added Japan's dilatory and shifting response to American demands in the Gulf war.
As for the Japanese, images of bombed Iraqi towns and of civilian deaths remind them of the devastation they experienced in World War II and rouse the same anti-war sentiments that made the Vietnam war such an unhappy episode in US-Japan relations. It is American planes and American smart bombs that are causing the casualties, therefore let the Americans stop. That is one level of popular response.
The more thoughtful response is to say, Japan cannot stand aside. This is a challenge for the whole world community, to stop aggression. Kaifu has made this response. But Japan is not like Britain or France, which have sent their troops halfway around the world if the perceived national interest so demands. Japan has a constitution that bans war and forbids ``war potential.''
AMERICANS tend to be impatient with Japanese pacifism. They doubt its idealism. But to many Japanese, pacifism is a new value that emerged in the wake of World War II.
Never mind that the constitution was bestowed on Japan by the American occupation. It reflected the determination of the great majority of Japanese to part with the disastrous militarism of prewar days and to embark on a new era of values shared with the world's leading democracies. The constitution was debated and enthusiastically passed by the Japanese Parliament. Article Nine, the provision forswearing the right of belligerence, was one of its most popular features. Today the peace constitution is enshrined in the national ethos. The only role open to Japan, from the electorate's viewpoint, is that of conscientious objector.
Six months after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, one month after the US and coalition resort to force, there is still no consensus as to how Japan's non-belligerent role is to be played. Even the interpretation of the proposed $9 billion contribution for US Gulf forces is various: many businessmen and trade officials look on it as a means of keeping the US Congress off their backs; opposition parties use it as a lever to influence domestic politics.
And yet there is a dawning recognition that this crisis goes beyond US-Japan relations, that Japan's world role is being questioned. All the theories that academics, officials, and politicians have put forward in the past about how to make economic power substitute for military power are being put to the test.
If the $9 billion proposal passes the Parliament, then will come an even greater test: How to work out an acceptable division of labor with the United States and other partners over more than just the Gulf war. Japan will pass the test only when it shows that it can, in important areas of world policy, be the initiator of policy, not the follower of policy set by others.