When Japan sent off the first of 550 ground troops to Iraq this week, it was yet another sign that the strongly pacifist nation is undergoing a paradigm shift in its defense policy.
A few years ago, even the suggestion of dispatching the country's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to a country where deadly combat was still a daily event would have brought howls of public protest and sharp rebukes from the nation's leaders.
This week, the US deputy secretary of State was on hand to praise - and further prod - the nation in its move away from the strict demilitarism imposed by America in the aftermath of World War II. And even as many Japanese find the pace of policy evolution breathtakingly fast, more of the country's decisionmakers are arguing that change is necessary to meet local security needs, stay relevant to its increasingly interventionist American ally, and advance Japan's own ambition to have the world take it seriously outside the economic sphere.
"The security environment in which Japan now finds itself has changed dramatically, such that Japan cannot maintain the safety of its people and interests without substantive change in the way it conceives of self-defense," says William Rapp of the Institute for International Policy Studies in Tokyo.
The inexorable rise of China and the unpredictable threat posed by North Korea and its nuclear ambitions leaves Japan's defense options - framed around a war-renouncing Constitution written nearly 60 years ago - looking increasingly out of step.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has stressed that the dispatch to Iraq is to provide support for reconstruction and is part of Japan's duty as a member of the international community. Japan was shocked at the international criticism it received for contributing $13 billion but little manpower to the 1991 allied Gulf War effort. Many policymakers cite that affront as opening their eyes to the way Japan is viewed by major nations as something of a weakling outside the economic arena.
"A lot of people came around to thinking that offering financial assistance alone last time was the wrong thing to do," says Shunichi Kitaoka, a professor of political science at Tokyo University.
Japan subsequently began to broaden the legal no-man's land created by discrepancies between the wording and the interpretation of its Constitution, which rejects the use of force to solve international disputes.
It passed a law in 1992 allowing participation in UN peacekeeping and later that year sent a token group to Cambodia under UN auspices. Over time, the public grew used to the missions. According to the Cabinet Office, which conducts opinion polls every three years, 46 percent of Japanese supported the overseas deployment of the SDF in 1991, while 80 percent favored such operations in 2000.
Then, after Sept. 11, 2001, Koizumi pushed through a law to allow the SDF to go to the Indian Ocean to help with supplies for the war in Afghanistan, giving logistical support to a live conflict for the first time - albeit from a safe distance.
These changes show Japan knows that "in order to have a real voice among the major powers ... it must participate more actively in international peacekeeping efforts," says Mr. Rapp.
US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage confirmed the US appreciates Japan's new will to take such risks. In Tokyo this week, he praised the dispatch as setting a benchmark for future action as Japan redefines its role in the world.
"Japan can count on America, and increasingly, America can count on Japan," he said. But he nudged the nation to expand "self-defense" to include the defense of US forces should they come under attack near Japan. "We're just working for a little more flexibility so that the US and Japanese colleagues of the Self-Defense Forces would be able to come to each other's assistance should it be necessary," he said.
But many Japanese are alarmed at the nation's bolder stance. "The Self-Defense Forces are just that - a self-defense force - they exist to protect Japan. If you send them overseas, then they become an army," says a 31-year old office worker.
Polls show the nation evenly split on the issue, though a large majority opposed any dispatch just a few months ago.
Koizumi's emphasis on the humanitarian aspects of the mission may have helped swing the mood.
"The aim of the SDF dispatch is more to aid reconstruction than fight terrorism. Unless we actually go there and do the work, we'll never find out if we can be useful in the reconstruction process," says Professor Kitaoka.
Another reason many Japanese may feel unsure about the dispatch is that the decision was made largely behind closed doors, and media coverage of the issue has been kept on a tight lead. The Defense Agency has asked the Japanese media to leave Iraq and canceled regular press briefings in Tokyo.
There are no briefings for those reporters who went to Iraq, and media are barred from entering the Japanese camp near the southern Iraqi town of Samawah.
"There's not much information - it just seems to be something that the government has decided to do and there's nothing we can do about it," says a 30-year old office worker.
Japan's older generation - the only population ever to pay for their government's atrocities with nuclear devastation - is particularly critical of any move away from pacifism. "We've had a long time of peace and prosperity now," says Noboru Igawa, a retiree. "We should be doing our utmost to promote peace in the world. There are other ways to contribute."
But the younger politicians who have risen to power in recent years know there are limits to the influence Japan's traditional foreign policy tools can bring among those nations with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. While overseas development assistance increases Japan's international profile to an extent, many politicians are looking for other options, given a decade-long economic slump and looming pension-funding problem.
A recent poll showed 90 percent of Diet members under the age of 50 supported revising the Constitution. Koizumi reportedly has plans to revise sections by late 2005, which will require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament.
In a tortured attempt to evade the war-renouncing clause, the Iraq dispatch law only allows troops to be sent to non-combat zones - a concept Koizumi himself concedes is impossible to define while sporadic attacks continue in the country. Opposition parties, which scored major political gains in a November general election, partly due to the government's stance on Iraq, have slammed the dispatch as clearly unconstitutional and demanded Koizumi's resignation.
• Sanae Kawanaka contributed to this report.