THE Japanese have not seen anything like it since the end of World War II.
Television images from Cambodia show soldiers from Japan carrying rifles and riding jeeps around southeast Cambodia, ready to fight off anticipated attacks against themselves or, more importantly, Japanese civilians in the area.
The scenes bring back memories of Japan's occupation of much of Asia a half century ago. Only this time, Japan is working under the auspices of the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC). And the threat of attack comes from Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who already have been blamed for killing at least one Japanese and have tried to disrupt this week's UN-sponsored elections.
To many Japanese, however, the details of the Cambodian conflict are not important. What matters more is that their government, by deciding last week to send troops on special forays, may be violating the Constitution. Drafted during the American occupation of Japan following World War II and widely embraced by Japanese, the charter renounces war and any use of force to settle international disputes.
"To deploy troops where an attack is anticipated and to authorize them to fire back is the same thing as using force, as prohibited by the Constitution," a leading politician, Ichiro Ozawa, told the Asahi newspaper.
Mr. Ozawa helped write the 1992 law that attempts to get around the Constitution and allows Japan to participate in the non-combat activities of UN peacekeeping operations. The law was pushed through parliament by the ruling party, against violent opposition after Japan was embarrassed for not sending troops to the Gulf war.
Soon after the law's passage, Japan sent about 600 Army engineers to Cambodia with a mandate only to build roads and bridges. They were assigned to Takeo Province, an area with few if any Khmer Rouge. They were given specific orders on how to avoid fighting or at most defend themselves minimally if attacked.
But Japan also sent police and election volunteers to help UNTAC, and after two were killed in other parts of Cambodia in recent weeks, emotions and public debate erupted in Japan.
A timid mood emerged. Officials appeared to waver on their commitment to Cambodia. In a nation unaccustomed to shedding blood for international causes, many Japanese wanted the troops to withdraw.
"The emotionalism over the safety of Japanese lives could lead to further use of force," Ozawa warned.
Just how Japan emerges from its difficult role in Cambodia is seen as a litmus test for its ambitions to be a benevolent leader of Asia and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said that a pullout from Cambodia would mean that Japan "will have decided not to play an international role in the future."
One government leader, Post and Telecommunications Minister Junichiro Koizumi, broke ranks and criticized the government, saying the law passed last year meant that Japan "would offer its sweat in any international contribution, but it did not go as far as offering to shed blood."
To head off popular sentiment for a pullout, the government moved quickly to defend its election volunteers and policemen.
Japan asked Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk to return to Cambodia from Beijing, hoping he might persuade the Khmer Rouge not to attack Japanese personnel.
It also asked UNTAC, which is headed by a Japanese, Yasushi Akashi, to move civilians, including Japanese policemen, out of dangerous areas. Japan promised 6,000 bullet-proof vests for UN personnel, and gave $1.1 million dollars to beef up security.
UNTAC rejected Japan's request to move Japanese policemen to the relative safety of Phnom Penh, not wanting to favor any particular country that had sent personnel to Cambodia. Japan then appealed to UN headquarters that its police must operate under special conditions of Japan's law and cannot take on dangerous assignments.
At the same time, Japan was allowed to station 41 of its election monitors in Takeo, near its own soldiers, which are known as Self-Defense Forces (SDF). In a move widely criticized, the government then began to send the troops out of their safe compound to visit polling stations - officially to collect information to help the SDF build roads.
But, said chief government spokesman Yohei Kono, if Japanese soldiers happen to be in the same place as the Japanese volunteers when an unexpected incident takes places, they may use their weapons not only to protect themselves, but also to protect the Japanese nationals.
"It is utterly unconstitutional ... to call for armed troops to defend Japanese personnel against local hostile nationals. Very plainly, this is just asking for trouble," said a Mainichi newspaper editorial.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa said the "visits" by SDF to Japanese volunteers were meant to assure worried Japanese at home that the volunteers are safe. He added that the Japanese people are coming to realize the difficulty as well as the responsibility of participating in UN peacekeeping.
With UNTAC's mandate running out in August after a new government is formed, Japan hopes to stay in Cambodia as long as other countries.
"Sending Japanese troops over on UN missions is a confirmation of our commitment to peace, not the thin end of the militarist wedge as some alarmists contend," writes Makoto Iokibe, a political science professor at Kobe University. "What we are being asked to do is work with other UN members to heal some of the world's open wounds and give peace a chance."
In the meantime, Japan has sent 48 non-combatant Japanese military personnel to join the UN peacekeeping operation in Mozambique. This is the second time that Japan has deployed troops to work under a UN flag.