Japan: Quickly Leaving Pacifism Behind

Threats of economic sanctions against North Korea, possible preemptive military strikes, and a missile defense system buildup -- welcome to the new, and surprisingly robust, Japanese national security policy. If there is a distinctive feature of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's stint in power, it is the rollback of the pacifism that has marked Japan's relations with the world.

Koizumi's latest move occurred on Oct. 4, when Japan moved closer to becoming a more serious military player on the global stage. A defense panel reporting to Koizumi called for measures aimed at overhauling the country's 1995 National Defense Program Outline. These include easing restrictions on missions that Japan's 255,000 Self-Defense Forces (SDF) can undertake abroad, loosening a decades-old ban on arms exports by Japan, and developing the capability to attack foreign missile bases -- a thinly veiled threat to North Korea.

Leery Neighbors

With U.S. backing, Japan is also pressing to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. The new Defense Program Outline, expected to be approved by yearend, is likely to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance even further -- and Japan's neighbors aren't so sure they like what they see. "The Chinese and Koreans are leery of anything Japan does," says William T. Breer, a Japan expert at Washington's Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Japan, at this dangerous moment in global affairs, doesn't seem concerned about protests from Beijing or Seoul. Koizumi and his Cabinet just want to keep up the momentum they have built since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. At that time, Japan's Diet approved a law that freed SDF naval forces to provide logistical support to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Tokyo has also sent hundreds of peacekeepers to Iraq. Last year, Japan launched its first-ever military spy satellites to track North Korean missile installations. And earlier this year the Diet gave Koizumi freedom to impose economic sanctions on North Korea without U.N. backing.

The get-tough approach with Pyongyang is surprising, given the studied inaction of Tokyo's North Korea policy. Japan's hawkish new Foreign Minister, Nobutaka Machimura, has voiced frustration about North Korea's foot-dragging in resolving cases involving abduction of Japanese citizens. "A time limit is necessary at some point, and we must consider such options as sanctions," he recently told the newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun. Such tough talk goes over well with the public, which understands that North Korean Rodong missiles, with an 800-mile range, could blanket most of the Japanese archipelago.

Small wonder then that Japan is pushing to develop a missile defense system with the U.S. Washington recently moved naval destroyers armed with Aegis missile tracking and intercept systems near North Korea. Japan hopes to install a jointly developed system on its own ships. That would mean exporting weapons technology to its U.S. partners -- a reversal of Japan's self-imposed ban on selling arms abroad.

Ultimately, Koizumi would like to revise the clause of the Japanese Constitution that renounces war, thus making it possible for Tokyo to form a military truly capable of projecting power abroad. Such a major change will be a tough sell. But Japan now lives in a rough neighborhood, and it knows it needs to get tough fast.

By Brian Bremner and Hiroko Tashiro in Tokyo, with Stan Crock in Washington

Edited by Rose Brady

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE