Two Important Dates For US-Japan Ties

TWO anniversaries coincided in Japan this month - one dark, the other light. Not many remember the dark one, but it was a key event in Japan's slide into the militarism and territorial expansionism that led to World War II.

On May 15, 1932, a group of young naval officers shot their way into the prime minister's official residence, a gloomy structure in the heart of Tokyo. Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, a respected elder statesman, calmly told his assailants, "Let's sit down and talk." They killed him forthwith.

Now for the bright anniversary, which got all the publicity, including a visit by Vice President Dan Quayle. On May 15, 1972, the US formally returned Okinawa to Japanese rule. Okinawa, also known as the Ryukyu Islands, was the scene of some of the bitterest fighting of World War II. Thousands of American and Japanese soldiers died, as well as thousands of Okinawans.

After the war, Okinawa became a bristling fortress from which American military might was projected into an Asian landmass dominated by communist powers - Moscow, Beijing, Hanoi. The first US Marines to land in South Vietnam came from Okinawa. So did some of the B-52s that cratered suspected Vietcong strongholds. In 1969, when President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato began the negotiations that led to the return of Okinawa, the Vietnam War was still going on. Okinawa was also part of the nu clear umbrella the US held over Japan, since Japanese antinuclear sentiment did not permit US nuclear weapons to be stationed in Japan itself.

Many commentators, Japanese and American, did not think that, under these circumstances, Okinawa could be returned to Japan. But Sato persevered, saying that for the people of Japan, the postwar era could not end without the reversion of Okinawa; Mr. Nixon responded, recognizing that for long-term US-Japanese friendship, the islands had to return to Japan.

Okinawa's return was a symbol of American trust in Japan as an ally, of American confidence that Japan's democratic transformation was complete. That confidence led to the concept of global partnership affirmed in the Tokyo Declaration signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa last January.

Thus, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Okinawa's return this year shows the distance Japan has traveled, not merely since 1972, but even more since 1932. Inukai's assassination extinguished Japan's prewar parliamentary democracy. Japan's armies, already on the march in Manchuria, soon spilled over into North China and then into Southeast Asia. Pearl Harbor followed, and eventually, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Today, the Japanese Parliament is debating a law permitting Japanese self-defense forces to participate in UN peacekeeping operations. The trauma caused by Japan's disastrous plunge into militarism was so great that in 1946 the Japanese people enthusiastically adopted an American-drafted constitutional provision banning the right to go to war or to maintain "war potential." Since then, economic recovery has revived confidence, not to say arrogance, over Japan's business prowess. But postwar pacifism is s till strong enough to cause heated debates, transcending party lines, over whether it would be either constitutionally permissible or politically wise for Japanese armed forces to be sent overseas, even under United Nations peacekeeping auspices.

In that sense, 1932 still casts its shadow over Japan today. Meanwhile, from Europe and from the US, Japan's new status as an economic superpower is accompanied by loud charges that Tokyo has built politically unsustainable trade surpluses, that its own markets are unfairly closed to outsiders, and that it isn't doing nearly enough to pull the world out of recession.

So these anniversaries of 1932 and 1972 give Japanese and Americans the opportunity to ponder what values they share, and whether, with the Soviet Union dissolved and the cold war over, they have enough in common to keep their partnership strong.

I believe they do. This is a statement more of faith than reason, though I believe reason enters in. Faith requires proof, and proof requires continuing hard work by the people of both countries.

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