JAPAN'S decision to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations, albeit on a limited basis, is cause for satisfaction, not concern. The policy change was denounced by critics both within and outside the country as a seedling of renewed Japanese militarism. In fact it is a natural step in Japan's gradual post-World War II evolution into a full partner with other democratic states in global affairs.
Last week's vote by Japan's lower house after nearly two years of wrangling can hardly be viewed as a backward step into the country's banzai past. Japan's constitutional prohibition on military involvement outside its territory was barely nudged.
No more than 2,000 Japanese troops will be permitted to participate in operations under UN auspices, and only in conscientious-objector roles - such as providing humanitarian relief, medical services, and communications - which entail little risk that Japanese soldiers will engage in combat. Any expansion of those authorized activities will require further parliamentary approval.
Japan has been smarting from criticism of its coat-holding performance during the Gulf war. Although Tokyo contributed substantial sums to Desert Storm, many in the US and elsewhere resented Japan's refusal to put its people at risk. This resentment piggy-backed on earlier concerns that wealthy Japan was assuming too little of the cost of Western security during the cold war.
If only symbolically, the new policy signals Tokyo's growing readiness to play a responsible part in world security affairs commensurate with its economic power. Japan's leaders recognize that it can't assume a full place in international councils solely through checkbook diplomacy.
Until recently, Japanese public opinion has firmly opposed any loosening of the restrictions in its "peace constitution." Even so, many Japanese, particularly in the postwar generations, have started to chafe under the strictures, asking why Japan, alone among the former Axis powers, is singled out as an untrustworthy state? The new freedom may provide a constructive outlet for Japanese nationalism, and vent building pressure from less benign nationalistic tendencies.
The alarm in China, Korea, and other countries brutalized under Japanese occupation is understandable. Yet the fear is more visceral than rational. In today's Japan, with its strong middle class, watchful press, democratic tradition, and weak executive branch, 1930s-style militarism would quickly be suffocated.