- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

President Bush hosted Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at the Crawford ranch late last week. The bad news is that the leaders of the world’s two largest economies disagreed over how the values of the yen and the dollar should be managed to boost their respective economies. The good news is that they see eye to eye on missile defense, the doctrine of pre-emption, confronting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the war on, and reconstruction of, Iraq. On military affairs, Japan’s biggest problem is that its usefulness in Asia is limited by an outdated pacifist constitution.

The increasingly belligerent stance of Pyongyang singlehandedly has re-awakened efforts to change the Japanese military posture. After North Korea fired rockets over and toward Japan, kidnapped some of its citizens and invaded national waters, the Japanese people are less comfortable leaving defense in the hands of a third party, the United States, which might not always have the will to go to war to defend them. Under their 1947 constitution crafted by Washington, Tokyo “forever renounced” the use of force to settle disputes. Such a prohibition is no longer practical. Not only would offensive capability deter North Korea, the potential for a reinvigorated and even nuclear-armed Japan would provide strong motivation for China to make greater efforts to play a constructive role in pressuring North Korea to halt its nuclear program. A nuclear Japan also could be useful to check Chinese hegemony across Asia.

The relationship between Washington and Tokyo is as close as it has ever been. Mr. Koizumi was second only to Tony Blair and John Howard in support of the Iraq war, and made numerous calls to try to convince other foreign leaders to back a second U.N. resolution in support of war. At the ranch summit, he received an intelligence briefing by the CIA — reportedly only the second foreign head of state ever to do so.

Constitutional change is in the air in Tokyo. For decades after the nation’s defeat and destruction in World War II, Japanese public opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to remilitarization as a safeguard against disaster. The need for global nuclear disarmament was an infallible doctrine to the Japanese, the only people ever hit with nuclear weapons. Both positions are crumbling. For example, a government-conducted poll published last week by the Japan Times showed that 65 percent of Japanese are in favor of using the military to deter a strike; 75 percent cited North Korea as a threat. Two weeks ago, the lower chamber of the Diet passed three bills paving the way for offensive military capability; the upper house will vote on the legislation by June 19.

There is fear in Asia over the dangers of letting the Japanese military genie out of the bottle. Memories are long, and the lore of Imperial Japan’s brutality is part of modern history in most places in the region. The fact, however, is that Japan is a changed country. Now a pro-American capitalist democracy, its foreign aid is the highest in the world. But its geopolitical usefulness should be more than doling out cash. Japan’s natural role is to guarantee a balance of power in Asia. It can only do that if its neighbors fear offensive projection of military force. We think Tokyo should have that power.

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