BOTH Germany and Japan are being goaded by United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to commit combat-ready troops to UN military missions.
Japan, however, may need less prodding.
Its military engineers already have been working under the UN flag in Cambodia since last fall, although they must operate under strict limits of a new Japanese law designed to carefully circumvent Japan's postwar pacifist Constitution. The troops mainly repair roads and bridges in safe areas of Cambodia.
And several top politicians have argued since the Gulf war that the government should either revise or reinterpret the Constitution that, under Article 9, bars Japan from using force to settle international disputes. Japanese leaders were embarrassed in the Gulf war after providing money and no troops.
But with Mr. Boutros-Ghali scheduled to visit Tokyo from Feb. 15-19, Japan has been forewarned by the UN chief that he is seeking Japanese troops for his vision of a standing UN force drawn from troops of member nations to help settle new global conflicts.
His pre-visit advice to Japan has opened a split among top politicians that reflects deep differences among Japanese over the role of the nation's military.
But what particularly bothers the political leaders is that Boutros-Ghali linked the UN use of Japanese troops to Tokyo's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
His comment that a bigger military role by Japan would "facilitate" its quest for a Council seat brought quick criticism from Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, one of the dovish leaders in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
"Military contributions to the United Nations are a completely different issue" from Japanese qualifications for a permanent seat, Miyazawa told parliament. Japan is the second largest contributor to the UN budget after the United States.
But one of Miyazawa's main LDP rivals, Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, called for a possible amendment to Article 9 to enable Japan to participate in UN security operations. Mr. Mitsuzuka heads the largest faction within the party.
"If and when Japan becomes a permanent member of the Security Council, other members might be disappointed if Japan is unable to fulfill expectations," Mr. Mitsuzuka said. "Disappointment always leads to [Japan-] bashing in the end."
More hawkish than Miyazawa, Mitsuzuka has been careful not to call for a rewording of Article 9, which has become popular gospel in a nation taught since World War II to see itself as pacifist. Rather, he suggests adding a sentence that would allow Japan to use force for UN missions.
Miyazawa warns that the Constitution, written under American guidance after the war, must be preserved at the risk of "repeating the mistakes" of Japan's prewar militarist aggression.
The debate is the latest example of Japan's search for a political role in the world to match its new economic clout.
"The Japanese people have become accustomed to the idea that peace is tantamount to having or using no military power, which leads to a philosophy of so-called `one-country pacifism' - that Japan can isolate itself from the international community as long it remains peaceful," stated a Feb. 6 editorial in Yomiuri, the largest Japanese newspaper. "Such a stance has wrought international criticism."
The current official interpretation of Article 9 allows military force to be used only for self-defense. This explains why, since the mid-1950s when Japan rearmed, the military has been called the Self-Defense Forces. Some LDP leaders, such as Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe, argue that a new interpretation of the Constitution would permit Japan to exercise "collective" self-defense in UN missions.
The debate comes as fighting has picked up in Cambodia, forcing Japan to consider whether to withdraw its 700 troops. Under the law passed last year that permits a noncombat military role in UN missions, Japanese troops must leave a country when a cease-fire breaks down.
To withdraw now might set back Japan's drive to become a UN leader, as well as to improve its image in Asia.
At the same time, Japan's Foreign Ministry is eager to send troops to UN missions in Somalia and Mozambique. The move has been resisted by the defense agency.
To both sound out and shape public opinion on changing the Constitution, a special LDP panel began hearings on Feb. 5, asking for comments from both the news media and scholars. The panel's first report is expected before the summit of seven industrialized nations in July, when Japan hopes to help shape a post-cold-war international order. Tokyo will host the summit.
In addition, the panel is aimed at winning over key opposition parties in parliament, whose votes would be needed to alter the Constitution.