It's a Japanese custom to bring gifts when you travel. So when Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi meets President Clinton May 3 in Washington, he'll bring news of Japan's newly expanded ability to cooperate with the US military in Asia.
It's a nice present for the US to receive, but it's of greater significance for Japan to give. The lower house of parliament passed revisions to the US-Japan defense cooperation guidelines April 27, and they will pass the upper house before mid-June, analysts say.
The revisions bring Japan's Self Defense Forces (SDF) closer to military action and allow them to operate outside Japan, marking the most significant change in defense policy here since the end of World War II. They underscore Japan's growing willingness to adopt a larger role in regional security, and its recognition that economic power may not provide enough clout on the world stage.
"The Gulf War had a huge impact on Japan and changed our understanding of security," says Shigenobu Tamura, of the Liberal Democratic Party's National Defense Division. "Before then, Japan thought it could simply make a financial contribution, but that was not the case," he says, recalling the international criticism Japan came under at the time.
Controversy over the guidelines shows a Japan still freighted by the memory of its wartime aggression. An enlarged SDF role unsettles China, which also worries that the US-Japan alliance may affect Taiwan. The guidelines also trouble many Japanese, who say the new legislation violates their war-renouncing Constitution.
Among other things, the new guidelines allow the SDF to:
*Operate "in areas surrounding Japan." The "areas" are not defined but will include situations "which, if they remained unchecked, may bring about direct armed attack against Japan."
*Use weapons while backing up US troops in rear-area support activities, which include providing medical, transportation, and telecommunications support.
*Conduct search-and-rescue operations for US soldiers.
*Use their own helicopters and vessels to rescue Japanese nationals in danger.
*Provide US forces with goods and materials in contingencies.
"[The guidelines] provide a legal basis for Japan to support [US] forces in a contingency," explains a Western diplomat who requested anonymity. "They also allow the US and Japanese governments to plan, particularly on the military side.... Without planning, things take much longer, you make so many mistakes, and so many people die."
Even so, critics are unhappy with the guidelines' content and the way they were passed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in conjunction with its Liberal Party coalition partner and the opposition New Komeito Party.
"There was no attempt by the LDP to explain this in the Diet [parliament]," says Takako Doi, leader of the Social Democratic Party, which voted against the guidelines along with the Communist Party. "It poses a fundamental challenge to civilian control of government and the democratic process."
Outside her office near the Diet, a group of protesters argue the same point. Because the guidelines commit Japan to providing support at the local level, grass-roots resistance could create problems later if, say, a prefectural governor refuses to let a US ship dock in his port.
"We're not getting enough information from the government about these guidelines," says housewife Yukiko Senzaki, whose group has collected more than 600,000 signatures in protest. "This opens the gates to war activity," she says.
North Korea would be the first answer most politicians and defense experts would give Mrs. Senzaki. The Stalinist state fired a missile over Japan last August and allegedly sent spy ships into Japanese territory last month, prompting the Japanese navy to fire its guns in anger for the first time since World War II.
Those events underscored the unpredictable nature of post-cold war security threats, says a former high-ranking Japanese defense agency official, arguing that they also bolstered public support for the new guidelines.
Indeed, when Japan passed the 1960 Mutual Defense Treaty, which covered US-Japan cooperation to promote regional stability in the "Far East," politicians had to sneak into the Diet in the middle of night to avoid protesters.
Resistance this time around has been far more tame. "I think people are starting to realize that we have to think seriously about our own defense," says the former defense official. "Even though there were debates over details, the bottom line is that people feel the need to do this."