Is Japan Willing To Pay The Price Of Global Power?

Japanese were shocked last month when suspected Khmer Rouge guerrillas gunned down U.N. volunteer Atsuhito Nakata in Cambodia. Then, when policeman Haruyuki Takata was assassinated there four weeks later, Japan was plunged into doubt over just how much the country should sacrifice in the name of a greater international role.

For years, the U.S. and other big powers have been prodding Japan to shoulder global responsibilities more commensurate with its economic clout. Japanese Foreign Ministry officials and leading politicians have also argued that the country shouldn't be content to sit back and play checkbook diplomacy. After much controversy, Japanese officials selected U.N. peacekeeping as a safe way to test the international waters. To get around constitutional bans on sending troops abroad, they adopted the U.N. Peacekeeping Operations Cooperation (PKO) Law last year and sent 600 Seabee-type troops, 75 civilian police instructors, and 8 cease-fire monitors to help out in Cambodia.

OUT OF HARM'S WAY. But the Cambodian operation is turning into a painful test of the country's will to be a global player. Public-opinion polls now show a majority of Japanese favoring full withdrawal. Some opposition parties are up in arms. "The two deaths were really a surprise to the Japanese people because the government said the PKO had no enemies," says Manae Kubota, a Japan Democratic Socialist Party member of parliament.

Feeling pressure, the Japanese government is pushing the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to move the police to safer areas. And even a key architect of Japan's PKO strategy, Foreign Affairs Parliamentary Vice-Minister Koji Kakizawa, tells BUSINESS WEEK a partial withdrawal may be unavoidable if the Khmer Rouge turns up the heat before elections in late May. Japanese pols are worried about a backlash in parliamentary elections that must be held by early 1994. "Every time I go on TV, my wife complains about all the calls from constituents saying they can't support me," Kakizawa says. He also worries that "any more casualties will cause serious damage for Japanese participation in future U.N. PKOs."

But a Japanese pullout would be a hard blow to the country's international aspirations. For instance, Japan's effort to win a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council would be bound to suffer. "It would really give people pause as to what Japan's all about, whether they're big-league players," says a Clinton Administration Japan specialist.

"WE'RE NOT READY." Japanese internationalists are issuing similar warnings on TV talk shows and in newspaper interviews. But the public may not be swayed. "We talk a lot about the internationalization of Japan, but we're not really ready," says Tatsuro Kunugi, professor of international cooperation at International Christian University in Tokyo.

Still, the government is preparing to stick its neck out further. Japan is already committed to sending military engineers to Mozambique under another U.N. operation. And PKO advocates such as Kakizawa and Seizaburo Sato, the influential research director at Tokyo's International Institute for Global Peace, argue for revising the PKO law to allow Japanese participation in more risky U.N. efforts, such as peace enforcement with heavy arms. "That's the trend," Sato insists.

Maybe it is among Japanese globalists. But for many Japanese, the loss of a single Japanese life in war isn't worth the potential gain in prestige. These deep-seated pacifist sentiments will make Japan's pursuit of a bigger international role treacherous indeed.

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