Japan quickens pace of its slow march into overseas arena

CAPITALIZING on a visit here by United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Tokyo has once again laid claim to a seat on the UN Security Council.

Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama said on Sept. 13 that he supports Japan's bid to become a permanent member of the Council, a status now held by the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France. Tokyo also approved a plan to contribute Japanese soldiers to UN relief efforts in central Africa.

Both of these decisions are part of Japan's slow march toward a more active international role, a process that provokes anxiety here and in many parts of Asia. The notion of an internationally active Japan reminds many people of World War II.

After its surrender, Japan adopted a remarkably pacifist Constitution that renounced war and the use of force to resolve international disputes. It also barred the country from having a military, but that provision has not prevented Japan's maintenance of a well-funded Self-Defense Forces, on the theory that it retains the right to protect itself. Any discussion of using the SDF in international peacekeeping or humanitarian efforts strikes some people as a prelude to renewal of Japanese militarism. For that reason, both Japanese officials and Mr. Boutros-Ghali have carefully insisted that Japan could take on added clout at the UN without being required to join in the organization's military operations.

For Mr. Murayama, these caveats are necessary to his political integrity. He is a Socialist who has long opposed any break from Japan's postwar pacifist stance. But his coalition is an ironic marriage of Socialists and the Liberal Democratic Party, a group of conservative politicians for whom postwar pacifism was useful because it allowed the government to concentrate mainly on economic development. The LDP ran the country from 1955 until 1993.

Now that Japan's economic stature is unquestioned, many Japanese leaders feel it is time for the country to stop conducting its foreign policy by writing checks and start being a full partner at the table of international politics.

The question of Japan's international role both links and divides leaders here. The ruling coalition swears loyalty to the Constitution, but many of its members plainly want Japan to have more international stature. The country's opposition is even more vocal about claiming a stronger role for Japan and hints that some parts of the Constitution should be revised.

The sensitivity over the issue explains why it has taken so long for the country to contribute personnel to the Rwandan refugee crisis. Since June, Japan has contributed $42 million to the operation, more than any other country except the US.

But it took more than a month for the government to agree on sending troops. The SDF contingent, set to leave Sept. 16, will serve in refugee camps in Zaire, providing medical care, clean water, and transportation until the end of the year. They will be barred from entering Rwanda.

Pacifists such as Toshihiro Yamauchi, a professor at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University, say these tasks should not be handled by the SDF, but by the country's version of the peace corps or other groups. ``Other Asian countries have become suspicious because of Japan's recent policy to become more responsible in the international community,'' he adds. ``There is a danger that Japan's current course will lead to a new form of militarism.''

As is the case with earlier dispatches of SDF contingents to Cambodia and Mozambique, the troops going into central Africa will carry sidearms to protect themselves. But this time they will bring a machine gun, the first time Japan has sent members of its military abroad with such a weapon since World War II. ``This is too much, too threatening,'' worries professor Yamauchi. ``For the purpose of self-defense, pistols are enough.''

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