Japan on the Defensive

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DONALD MACINTYRE TokyoThe 431 newly minted soldiers, sailors and aviators assembled in the auditorium of Japan's National Defense Academy sat ramrod straight, keeping their excitement tightly under wraps as the speeches droned on. When the last one ended, they threw their cadet caps into the air, then whooped and high-fived their way to the exits. It was graduation day last month, and clearly a time for celebrating. But their display of enthusiasm masked the quandary most feel: how to serve in a country where memories of a terrible war are still vivid. The Japanese people still have a bitter feeling from the war, says Ryuji Yamada, 22, who is entering the air force. Our link with the people is still bad.

Japan's Self-Defense Forces have often borne the brunt of Japan's postwar allergy to things military. Many Japanese blame militarism for the devastation Japan suffered in World War II. The country's U.S.-dictated postwar Constitution barred it from raising an army, but rules were bent when the cold war started. Back then, people sometimes threw stones at uniformed soldiers. Talk about defense was taboo, a silence reinforced by the sensitivities of the neighbors Japan had once invaded. But the taboo was shattered when North Korea fired a rocket over northern Japan last year. Japanese abruptly realized they could do little to counter a real attack. The new sense of vulnerability sparked Japan's first serious defense debate in decades.

The current willingness to talk defense has helped smooth passage of new guidelines on military cooperation with the U.S. if conflict breaks out in the region. But if Japan is growing less skittish about its military, many Japanese feel the recent debate has skirted the meat of the issue. Lawmakers have wrestled with nuts-and-bolts matters, like what kinds of mines Japan can sweep without violating the Constitution. But Tokyo has dodged the crucial question of whether its troops could get dragged into conflict in potential trouble spots, particularly Taiwan. Politicians have gone all the way to Beijing and said the guidelines don't apply to China, marvels Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, who wants a bigger role in United Nations operations for Japan's military. That's why the Chinese treat us like idiots. Ozawa says Japan should stop mumbling about the threats it faces. But Japanese who support the Constitution's pacifist bent are convinced that Ozawa and other nationalists are manipulating Japan's sense of vulnerability to push their real agenda: rearmament. The debate over defense moves in tandem with the debate over the Constitution, says Hideo Den, a Social Democratic lawmaker. Japanese and Asians fear Japan could remilitarize if it scraps the Constitution.

Japan is still far from taking such a step. Under the new guidelines, Japan's main tasks in any Asian war could include minesweeping, inspecting ships and transporting fuel and ammunition in areas well behind combat zones. Tokyo could also provide logistical help, such as use of civilian airports and hospital beds in Japan. The government is racing bills through the lower house before Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi meets President Bill Clinton in Washington next month. Obuchi should be able to reassure Clinton that the bills will make it through the upper house by June.

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But critics fear Japan is moving into dangerous new territory. A long-range missile attack could draw Japan into a conflict, even if its troops are playing only a supporting role, frets Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the Social Democrats' pointwoman on the defense debate: This could turn into Asia's Kosovo. The concerns are echoed at the local level. Regional and city governments are already grumbling--and their cooperation will be needed to make the new rules work. Officials in cities like Fukuoka and Kobe worry that lending hospital beds and airports to U.S. forces could turn their towns into targets.

Tokyo won't say whether the guidelines cover Taiwan, a particularly sensitive issue for China. The wording specifies that they target areas surrounding Japan, but officials insist the phrase is situational, not geographic. Ozawa has lambasted his partners in Japan's coalition government for mincing words. To say it's not a geographic concept is just silly, he exclaims. But if Ozawa is blunter than most, Den and other left-leaning politicians see his prominence in the defense debate as part of a disturbing slide to the right. Conservatives have started pushing harder for an official review of the Constitution. Tokyo recently said it will give official status to Japan's red-sun flag and Kimigayo anthem, despite their militaristic overtones for many Japanese.

The doves weren't reassured last week when nationalist Shintaro Ishihara rode the new mood to victory in the Tokyo gubernatorial election. Among his more controversial positions: Japan needs access to nuclear-weapons technology, just in case. For now, that's not in the cards. But at the National Defense Academy, engineering graduate Tomonari Yoshiaka says he is ready to build whatever Japan needs to defend itself. Peace has been taken for granted too long, he says. Japanese are starting to realize the importance of the Self-Defense Forces. The rest of the world is starting to pay attention as well.

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