IN a nation still at odds with itself over its wartime past, Japan's ruling party plans a vote in parliament this week on a bill that could pave the way for troops to serve in United Nations peacekeeping forces.
The vote itself, however, may be anything but peaceful. The largest opposition party, the Socialists, promises to use "any physical means" to stop the bill.
A vicious brawl broke out between politicians last December in a vote on a similar bill, shocking many Japanese taught that their nation had become pacifist and democratic after World War II.
The well-televised melee helped to set back the efforts of the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to send 2,000 troops to Cambodia soon to join those of other countries already starting up a UN force in that Southeast Asian nation.
To the dismay of LDP officials, some UN officials said recently that Japanese troops were not needed in Cambodia, forcing the LDP to speed up negotiations with two small opposition parties whose support is needed to pass the bill in the Upper House. In addition, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa wants a vote by today to allow him to attend the Earth summit in Brazil.
If the bill fails to pass, Japanese leaders fear further foreign criticism that it cannot make an international contribution other than money.
The LDP has had to water down the bill, agreeing to a freeze on dispatch of troops and to seek prior approval of a dispatch by parliament. These compromises "smack of an expediency" just to achieve passage, stated a Mainichi newspaper editorial, "and leave observers in the dark as to how it will ever be implemented."
"Japanese public opinion is still totally divided over whether Japan should dispatch forces to participate in UN operations," says Hisao Ikeuchi, a policy board member of the Social Democratic Party. "We want a longer debate." The LDP hopes that passage of the present compromise bill will shift public opinion and allow an "unfreezing."
The LDP, stymied by the 1947 Constitution which appears to deny overseas dispatch of troops to international conflicts, has taken out ads in a public relations campaign to whip up public support for the dispatch.
The debate, which touches deep emotions among some Japanese with memories of the military's prewar role, has gone on for two years, ever since the LDP was embarrassed after failing to send troops to the Gulf war.
"Our fear is that the bill has no guarantee that Japan may not become a military power again," says Manae Kubota, the Socialists' "shadow" foreign minister.
TO put pressure on the Socialists, some LDP members have threatened to call a general election, in which opposition parties would likely lose seats.
"If [the Socialists] raised their ugly heads and opposed the UN peacekeeping operation bill, we could dissolve the Lower House," Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe said.
But the Socialists called the LDP's bluff. "The bill is a clear-cut issue of whether to dispatch or not to dispatch the military, and we would like to bring it to the people in an election," said Mr. Ikeuchi.
The parliamentary standoff also challenges a long-held assumption that bills should be passed with the consensus of all parties, not by overbearing majority rule. The LDP has dominated Japanese politics since 1955 but often avoids rail-roading measures past the opposition.
"If the LDP tries to railroad the bill," says Ikeuchi, "then we have no other way but physical resistance." Short of a brawl, the Socialists could stall a vote by walking at a snail's pace from their seats to the voting box.