TOKYO -- When Japan sent troops to participate in the United Nations peacekeeping operations in Cambodia last fall, the Japanese took pride in having made a major stride toward fulfilling their responsibilities as a world power.
Many thought Japan no longer could be accused of ducking its duties by contributing only money, as it had during the Persian Gulf war.
But since Haruyuki Takata, a 33-year-old policeman, was killed in an ambush while he was on patrol last week near the Thai-Cambodian border, Japan appears to have lost its nerve.
His death, which has dominated headlines here for a week, has plunged Japan into a domestic crisis, with politicians and influential newspapers calling for withdrawal of Japanese forces from Cambodia.
For the moment, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa is resisting the pressure.
"We are sorry, but we must achieve the objective of holding the [May 23-28 Cambodian] election, while making sure that this sort of thing does not happen again," he said in a televised news conference Wednesday. "That, I believe, is the international contribution demanded of us."
But experts say any further Japanese toll -- Mr. Takata was the second person from Japan killed in Cambodia -- will create such concerted public criticism that Japanese leaders may have little choice but to withdraw their troops from the multinational operation.
Mr. Miyazawa already has seen a member of his Cabinet break rank.
Junichiro Koizumi, the outspoken minister of posts and telecommunications, has called for withdrawal from Cambodia, insisting that "there is no argument that [Japan's peacekeepers] should go so far as to shed their blood."
He is playing to a receptive audience. In a survey conducted by Asahi Television, one of Japan's leading broadcasters, 52 percent of 1,000 people polled wanted Japan to pull out. Nihon Keizai, Japan's powerful business daily, urged Japan to offer financial aid to the United Nations instead.
Experts fault Mr. Miyazawa for understating the danger of peacekeeping efforts to win passage of a law last June permitting the government to send troops overseas for such efforts.
"The government never explained the danger of sending people to the front," says Naoki Saito, a professor of international studies at Tokoha Gakuen Fuji Junior College in Shizuoka. "Nobody ever dreamed that somebody might actually die."
Japan's reaction to Mr. Takata's death suggests that even the government didn't know what it was getting into.
Now, instead of reaffirming its commitment to the multinational peacekeeping effort in Cambodia, Japan appears to be pleading for extra protection for its forces.
Although Yasushi Akashi, who heads the U.N. authority in Cambodia, agreed to send new volunteers to the safer southern region, using the argument that Japanese Self-Defense Forces already were stationed there, he refused to give special treatment to existing Japanese forces.
"It may look very selfish, but we have to ask [the United Nations] to take all possible actions to protect our troops," a senior Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday. "If we fail in this first case, it will take at least another few years before we could participate in another operation."
Not all Japanese want to leave. Business executive Takehito Nakata, 55, whose son, a volunteer, was killed in Cambodia last month, quit his job to start a foundation to encourage Japanese to continue with international peacekeeping efforts. He thinks they will.
"Right now, Japan is upset, but if everything remains calm, Japan will remain committed because Japan wants to be a good member of the international community," Mr. Nakata said.
But there is little sympathy for Mr. Nakata's cause. Japanese volunteers themselves are asking to leave.
"How many of us will have to die before you decide to pull us out of Cambodia?" Hiroto Yamazaki, head of the Japanese civilian police corps in Cambodia, asked Home Affairs Minister Keijiro Murata, who flew to Cambodia last weekend.
What keeps Japan from pulling out is fear of international condemnation. Even those Japanese unsympathetic to the Cambodian peacekeeping effort recognize that withdrawal could damage Japan's international standing. It might, for example, weaken Japan's chances of getting its long-sought seat on the U.N. Security Council.