THE anti-military political opposition in Japan has succeeded in turning an otherwise lackluster election campaign into a virtual referendum on the role of the Japanese Defense Forces in United Nations peace-keeping operations.
The campaign debate began last month after the Social Democratic Party of Japan walked out of parliament in protest over the passage of a law allowing the first overseas deployment of troops since World War II.
The party then took advantage of the scheduled July 26 elections for half of the upper house seats to take the issue to the streets and to the media, forcing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to defend the law.
The LDP, angry at the media for highlighting the law, had hoped that its new budget package to stimulate the econ-omy would help it receive a fair showing in the election.
But many public- opinion surveys reveal that a slim majority of Japanese oppose the deployment bill, known as the PKO (peace-keeping operations) law. And the socialists, who have long seen their role as preventing any revival of militarism in Japan, claim that too many of Japan's neighbors in Asia oppose expanding the role of the Japanese military.
"The PKO law is deeply affecting voters and constituencies," stated a June 28 editorial in Mainichi newspaper, which added that the issue "may well determine the future of the country."
In passing the law, the LDP had already compromised by "freezing" a provision allowing troops to be deployed in dangerous areas. At present, the law allows up to 2,000 soldiers to help the UN in monitoring a cease-fire, organizing elections, and disarming combatants. LDP leaders say they expect a national debate for many years on Japan's role in the world, an issue raised starkly during last year's Gulf war.
"Japan must assume its responsibility because the fate of the world, which aspires to peace and prosperity, is common with ours," Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa said in a statement. "At the (Munich Group-of-Seven) sum-mit, I felt how much the world is expecting of us."
Since the passage, the government has moved quickly to prepare for 400 to 700 troops to be deployed to Cambodia in a few months to aid UN forces there.
Despite the debate over the military, the LDP is confident that it will take a majority of 127 seats up for grabs in the election, although the size of its win is expected by many observers to reflect public opinion on the new law.
"Provided that things don't change much, I think we will win the majority of seats," says Ichiro Ozawa, former LDP secretary-general. The LDP lost its majority hold in the upper house in 1989 for the first time since the party was formed in 1955. The issues in that election centered on a new sales tax and scandals by high LDP leaders.
Even if it wins its targeted number of seats - about 60 to 65 - the LDP will still lack control of the upper house, unless it can win over small opposition parties for key votes on major legislation, as it did on the PKO law.
Meanwhile, the election is also seen as changing the balance of power among the various factions within the LDP. The powerful faction headed by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita has maneuvered within the party to promote candidates, which will help it in the next Cabinet reshuffle later this year.