Competing Visions For Military in Japan

IS Japan a ``handicapped country''? Should it try to become an ``ordinary country''? Is Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa the man to lead Japan in either of these directions?

As an eventful 1993 moves toward December, questions like these agitate the media and are hotly debated at dinner tables where journalists, politicians, and other opinion leaders gather. Most of them recognize that Japan has come to the end of one half-century chapter of its history through a combination of three factors: the end of the cold war, the end of exuberant economic growth, and the downfall of the Liberal-Democrats. But there are competing visions of the new Japan that is to emerge.

``Ordinary country'' is a phrase popularized by Ichiro Ozawa, a politician who is regarded by many as the central pillar of the ruling reformist coalition. The sense of guilt arising from Japan's aggressive prewar behavior and World War II atrocities, and the determination to become a peaceful democratic country inspired the passage of a constitution banning war and resort to armed force. This made Japan a ``special country,'' in its own eyes at least, single-mindedly concentrating on economic growth while hiding behind American military might and refusing to participate in anything that smacked of military operations, including United Nations peacekeeping operations (except for very limited logistic activities).

Mr. Ozawa strongly denies he wants his country to become a major military power; but he argues that it cannot forever invoke special status as an excuse not to pull its full weight in the global community. It is time for Japan to take a hard look at how it can best contribute to the world community without claiming unusual exemptions.

``Handicapped country'' is the term preferred by former Foreign Vice-Minister Hisashi Owada. He doesn't disagree with the intent of Ozawa's ``ordinary country'' proposal, but believes it is likely to be misunderstood both by Japanese and by citizens of countries that were the victims of Japan's wartime aggression. The legacy of bitterness and suspicion left by that behavior constitutes an enormous and continuing handicap for Japan, Mr. Owada maintains. Nevertheless, Japan can pull its full weight within the word community. For instance, if the developing world truly requires a major infusion of aid and investment, Japan should not be satisfied simply to give a billion dollars or so more than the United States does. The scale and imagination of Japan's aid should be such as to set the standard for the rest of the world, including America, to follow.

Whether Japan actually embarks on an imaginative, leading role within the world community will depend a great deal on the quality of its leadership. Ozawa, Owada, and many others do like Mr. Hosokawa and think his heart is in the right place. They recognize that so far there is not enough evidence one way or the other to show whether he has what it takes for the long haul.

Political reform legislation, which one hopes will curb corruption and promote alternation in government, is on track. But economic reform measures, including steps to open Japanese markets and stimulate domestic growth, have yet to reach the parliamentary floor.

Hosokawa broke with his Liberal-Democrat predecessors by forthrightly admitting that Japan waged a war of aggression in Asia and apologizing for it, most recently in his visit to South Korea earlier this month.

A small child during World War II, the prime minister bears no personal guilt for what happened then. But for this very reason, some opinion leaders think Hosokawa is too free with apologies. They ask: How much has he suffered for his beliefs, how much genuine conviction underlies his remarks?

Whether an ``ordinary country'' or a ``handicapped country,'' Japan does not have an easy row to hoe in the world that is beginning to take shape. Either formulation requires a major commitment of money, of sweat, possibly of blood. Commitments during periods of expanding economy are one thing. But when the choices must be made between domestic and external commitments of static or shrinking resources, that's when leadership is tested. Fairly soon in the new year, Hosokawa is likely to face his moment of truth.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.