The War Has Changed Japan's View of Itself and of Pacifism


Tokyo.--Iraqi soldiers with their hands up and American tanks rolling through Kuwait dominated most television broadcasts here last week, just as they did in the rest of the industrialized world.

Most, but not all.

Day after numbing day, NHK, the national TV network, devoted hours of each afternoon to still more talk in the budget committee of the Diet, Japan's parliament, on how to raise the $9 billion Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu promised President George Bush as this country's contribution to the war.

For channel-switchers with a bent for black humor, it thus became possible, for a few bemusing days, to leap back and forth between images from the climactic final days of the war itself and images of the prime minister of the world's second-biggest economic power, still struggling to define his country's role in a crisis that had begun six and a half months earlier.

Among some Japanese and many resident foreigners, the contrasting television pictures lent themselves to familiar stereotypes of this as a country that would rather ride out a crisis, let others fight the battle and hold back to see how little it could get away with doing.

"The Japanese still just don't get it," one American diplomat in his second assignment here said last week.

"The ambassador has successfully pressed the case to the bureaucracy and the politicians, and we'll eventually get the money they promised," he added. "But the underlying attitude still is one where the Japanese ask what is expected of them, rather than having any spontaneous desire of their own to join fully in whatever is going on."

His remarks reflect one much-discussed face of Japan's response to the Gulf crisis.

That face is the agonizing delays that have frayed tempers in Washington as Japan has seemed to dither while crisis grew into air war and air war grew into ground war.

By the time the ground war turned into history's biggest-scale televised military rout, Japan still had not managed a binding vote on its $9-billion promise.

At coffee shops, across dinner tables and in other private conversations with foreigners, many individual Japanese express embarrassment that their country has failed to shape a convincing role for itself in the crisis.

As the war has proceeded, increasing numbers of newspaper and television commentators have warned that Japan's slowness will produce a backlash in Washington that will make ** always-sticky trade issues even harder to deal with.

But this discomfiture, seen from another angle, presents the same facts with a very different face, one that may have greater and longer-lasting consequences than Japan's actual decision itself, not only to Japan but also to Asia and to the world.

In six and a half months of confrontation between Saddam Hussein and the industrialized world, and six and a half months of relentless American pressure for more help and then for still more, Japanese public opinion has repeatedly shifted farther and farther away from positions that once seemed central to the national pacifism imposed on the country by the U.S. occupation after World War II.

Japanese pacifism has been for more than four decades a foundation of foreign policy for many of the neighboring nations that were this country's victims in World War II.

Within Japan, pacifism has kept many military topics taboo and effectively thwarted public debate of Japan's strategic role through two decades of emergence as a world-class economic power.

The governing Liberal Democratic party won pledges of support from two opposition parties only after Washington promised that Japan's contributions would be used strictly for non-lethal activities such as transportation and logistics.

The pledges assured eventual passage of the $9 billion contribution, which will thus become the first war appropriation the Diet has approved since World War II.

That's no modest war budget for a country whose American-imposed constitution renounces "forever" the right to use force in any form as a means of settling international disputes.

Like many portentous decisions here, it will come after such prolonged discussion and such agonizing delay that the world may not notice how profoundly the debate has changed not only the country's policies but also its underlying political attitudes.

Although Japan maintains one of the world's biggest military budgets, has in its Self Defense Forces a correspondingly sophisticated military, and is home to the naval and military bases that form the foundation of the U.S. presence in the Far East, no one would have dreamed a year ago that this country would in 1991 be debating -- much less adopting -- a multi-billion-dollar war appropriation.

That war appropriation thus represents a huge step away from Japan's more than four decades of pacifism.

Equally importantly, the debate itself and public opinion polls taken during its course make clear that a powerful and still-growing body of public opinion both understands the implications of the step and approves of it.

Another large body of Japanese polled on the issue chooses the "no opinion" option, which polling experts who study Asian societies generally regard as a form of acquiescence in government policy.

In many polls, with varying formulations of the question, these two responses have tended to add up to either a majority or just under a majority.

In most polls, somewhat more Japanese have disapproved the war appropriation than have approved it, but no recent poll has put the approval level at less than 30 percent no matter how the question has been worded.

The most recent poll, by the Asahi newspaper on February 23 and 24, after five weeks of air attacks and with the ground assault getting under way, showed 39 percent approving the $9-billion war budget, 17 percent with no opinion and 44 percent opposed.

"The least you have to say is that if a third of the people approve, and a lot more say they don't object, then the idea of spending such a big sum of money on a foreign war has become, at minimum, a politically legitimate concept within the society," Sadayuki Maeda, a political reporter, said.

"I don't believe there's ever before been a time when I would have said that," he added.

In the rest of Asia, too, signs abound of an easing of the fears of Japan left over from World War Two.

Mr. Kaifu's initial announcement, as the air war began in mid-January, also called for sending a small fleet of military transport planes to help move refugees generated by the fighting.

The idea was to give Japan a token " visible presence" in the war zone,a show of willingness to share in the dangers.Japan's opposition parties marshalled enough objections that they effectively thwarted that plan.

But before it was dead here, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, all long-standing opponents of Japanese military presence overseas, had announced approval of the plan and willingness to provide refueling facilities for the planes on their way to the Middle East.

As with Japanese poll respondents who favored or acquiesced in the $9-billion war budget, those Southeast Asian governments' announcements did not constitute a reversal of demands that Japan never fight overseas again.

Rather, most diplomats took them as reflections of a widespread assumption that the U.S. cannot indefinitely sustain the high-profile presence it still has in Asia and that it is going to become increasingly necessary to accept Japan as a fuller participant in the region's affairs.

That, too, is a shift in emphasis that few would have predicted a year ago at this time.

John Woodruff is The Sun's Tokyo correspondent.

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