DESPITE a strong streak of pacifism, Japan's attempt to participate in only the safest of military operations under the United Nations flag has quickly shown its limits.
In both Somalia and Cambodia, and perhaps eventually Bosnia, UN-backed forces face such unexpected tasks and perils that Japan has had difficulty in defining its role within the constraints of a new "peacekeeping operations" (PKO) law.
The law, which allows for the dispatch of Japanese troops to UN missions, was passed last June, some 20 months after Japan was embarrassed for only bankrolling the Gulf war without sending troops. But the law's many conditions, aimed at appeasing domestic opposition, may not be fitting for the UN's new and peculiar missions in a post-cold-war world.
"We are aware that the international situation is very fluid, and the latest developments are calling for new types of peacekeeping operations and a new emphasis on new aspects of such operations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa says. "We have a certain difficulty in coping with all these latest developments."
In Cambodia, where about 600 Japanese soldiers were sent in September to work with the UN, the Khmer Rouge has become an increasing threat. Other UN forces have already been held captive or attacked by the Khmer Rouge in an apparent breakdown of a UN-brokered cease-fire. Under Japan's new law, Japanese troops should withdraw if no cease-fire exists.
"Strictly speaking, Japan is violating its law in Cambodia. Its troops should leave," says Seizaburo Sato, a political scientist at Keio University in Tokyo.
"But they can't do it while other countries still have their soldiers there," he says. In addition, Japan hopes that its peaceful troop presence in Cambodia will help reduce fears in Asia that it might ever remilitarize.
In Somalia, where at least 18 nations plan to send peacekeepers to join the UN effort, Japan has decided not to participate because of the continuing violence by roving militias. Under the PKO law, Japan can only join UN operations when all parties in a conflict welcome Japanese troops.
But the clear humanitarian nature of the Somalia operation has raised new questions on whether the PKO law should be revised. The law was passed with a provision for review only in 1995.
Marrack Goulding, the UN director-general for administration, told Japan's Yomiuri newspaper that he hoped Japan would join the next round of troops entering Somalia. At present, though, Japanese officials are only weighing the prospects of sending military medical teams.
A leading politician, Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party's policy affairs research council, said on Dec. 28 that a national referendum should be held to revise the Constitution to broaden the mandate for Japan's participation in UN peacekeeping.
The PKO law was carefully crafted to get around Article 9 of Japan's 1946 Constitution that forbids "the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." The article is a historical legacy of the pacifism that the US occupation tried to implant in Japan after World War II.
But with no national consensus on whether to revise the Constitution, any change to Article 9 could be difficult. An amendment must be passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then by a simple majority in a national referendum.
Behind Japan's debate over its PKO law lies a desire to be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and to become more than an economic superpower on the world stage.
"The Japanese people are still in the process of learning by experience," Dr. Sato says. "They desparately need experience step by step."
To make any change to Article 9 more appealing to the Japanese, Mr. Mitsuzuka suggested that the Constitution's preamble also be changed to advocate preservation of the global environment and the extinction of nuclear weapons.
After being criticized in the US for its ambivalence on the Gulf war, Japan did respond quickly to the Somalia situation by becoming the largest financial donor. On Dec. 18, it announced that it would provide $100 million to a "trust fund for Somalia - Unified Command," which it helped set up in the UN Security Council.
"This time we believe we responded very promptly and adequately," Mr. Hanabusa says. Japan also plans to help Somali refugees fleeing to neighboring countries.