By Brian Bremner One of the more remarkable developments of 2004 has been the growing assertiveness of Japanese foreign policy. While Spain and the Philippines have wavered and pulled troops and support staff out of Iraq, Japan has proven a stalwart ally in the U.S.-led war on terror. Against strong public opposition and political attacks by the dovish opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has dispatched some 500 troops to Iraq. That has garnered plenty of bear hugs from U.S. President George Bush, who clearly sees Japan as his most reliable ally in the region.
So far, Koizumi hasn't paid that huge a political price for largely ignoring the general will of Japanese citizens. Sure, sending Japanese troops to Iraq was a factor in the disappointing showing of Koizumi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Upper House general elections in July. But the LDP controls the more important Lower House of the Diet, where the DPJ doesn't have the numbers for a no-confidence vote. Though Koizumi's economic reforms have angered some ultraconservative types within his own party, there are no real threats internally, either. The upshot: Koizumi, who became Premier in early 2001, seems a sure bet to run Japan until his term ends in 2006.
DICEY NEIGHBORS. The question, though, is whether Japan will continue to be a sure-footed U.S. ally -- and the answer is anything but clear. A real and very divisive battle is brewing over whether Japan should finally revise or discard the war-renouncing clause in its Constitution. Plenty of folks in Washington would like to see that happen. Indeed, when U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was in Japan last month, he set off a firestorm by suggesting the clause is antiquated, preventing Japan from being a real force in global security issues and even holding back the Japan-U.S. alliance.
At issue is Article 9 of the Constitution, which ironically was pretty much written by U.S. Occupation forces after Japan surrendered in 1945. Article 9 stipulates that the Japanese people "forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." That interpretation has loosened some over the years as Japan has sent peace-keeping forces to Cambodia and other hot spots. But without an overhaul, many pols argue, it's hard to see Japan playing a major role in any conflict, say, with North Korea or taking preemptive military action against terrorist threats.
Koizumi and the LDP are interested in visiting the issue, and there are committees in the Diet studying it. The reality is that Japan lives in a very dangerous neighborhood. North Korea probably already has several nuclear weapons, according to Central Intelligence Agency estimates, as well as the missile technology to deliver a devastating conventional attack on Japan -- or worse. Small wonder that Japan has launched spy satellites and is exploring the development of antimissile defense systems with the U.S.
CORPORATE ALLIES. Yet to actually scrap Article 9 would be very risky politically for the LDP and an earth-shattering cultural shift for Japan. After a devastating military defeat and a record of war crimes in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia, Japan clearly yearned to move beyond its past and redefine itself as a nonthreatening but economically strong player in the postwar era. And though younger generations of Japanese probably don't feel the sense of national shame that preceding ones did, a constitutional revision would still be a very tough sell to the majority of the public.
True, Koizumi does have some allies -- namely, Corporate Japan. The all-powerful Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) is in favor of some sort of revision that would give the country more latitude to defend itself or team up with the U.S. Such business luminaries as Toyota Motor (TM) Chairman Hiroshi Okuda and Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Chairman Shigemitsui Miki believe Japan's economic security as a trading nation depends on international security. They also believe that Japan can't dodge its commitments of that ilk, especially in the Middle East, from where Japan imports about 90% of its crude oil. An unstable Middle East -- or one that converted to an ultrafundamentalist Theocratic region with a bias against the rich -- would be a disaster not just for Japan but for the West as well.
A NEW JAPAN? Those arguments have merit, but so does this one: The Japanese public is light years from signing off on a fundamental repositioning of itself in the world order or changing the national identity that has served it well over the last five decades. At an Aug. 6 ceremony marking the 59th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, the city's mayor, Tadatoshi Akiba, blasted Washington by stating the "the egocentric worldview of the U.S. government is reaching extremes." He also declared: "The Japanese government, as our representative, should defend the peace Constitution, of which all Japanese should be proud."
Koizumi was also at the ceremony, and he had to have recognized how deeply this sentiment resonates with voters all across the archipelago. At some point, probably in the next couple of years, the great debate of constitutional revision and Japan's role as a real power in the world will come to a head. Washington is hoping Koizumi or the next Prime Minister will rule over a very different Japan -- one that will flex its military muscle and help the U.S. hunt down terrorists across Asia. Japan hasn't disappointed the U.S. so far. But it's far from a sure thing Japan will be there when the U.S. needs it next time around. Bremner is Asia economics editor for BusinessWeek in Tokyo