The Rising East
first combat forces
since World War II
In a move that has both raised eyebrows and generated applause in Asia and across the Pacific, Japan has dispatched three small warships and logistics forces to South Asia to help the United States in the campaign against terror.
This is the first overseas deployment of Japanese combat forces since the crush defeat of World War II after which Japan wrapped itself in a pacifist cocoon and limited itself to the barest essentials of military power. Japan's Self-Defense Forces are today the smallest and least capable of any major industrial nation.
The Japanese forces in South Asia will be restricted to logistic support and are not to engage in combat. Under the new law permitting their deployment, however, the forces retain the right to fire their weapons to protect themselves.
Analysts who have queried Japan's strategic thinkers say the primary motive for sending the forces is the fear that Japan would be scorned for not doing so as it was during the Gulf war. Japan contributed $13 billion to that war effort, among the largest donations outside that of the United States, but was roundly criticized for "checkbook diplomacy."
The Japanese at that time dispatched minesweepers to help clear the Persian Gulf but they arrived after the shooting, for which Japan was also disparaged.
Said a Japanese observer then: "Japan must learn that Japanese mothers are not the only ones who don't want to send off their sons to die in battle."
This time, after much debate, the Japanese Diet, or parliament, passed the "Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law" in late October at the insistence of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. It enables Japan to support "the efforts of the international community for the prevention and eradication of terrorism."
The long-term question is whether this deployment constitutes a breakout from the 56 year-old pacifist cocoon. In turn, will that nudge Japan toward becoming a "normal" nation, the meaning of which is ill-defined, as several Japanese leaders have been urging in recent years?
Much will depend on how the Japanese sailors and airmen comport themselves. That would strongly influence the thinking and posture of Japan's political leaders and the general public as press and TV coverage will surely be intense.
At this point, it could go either way.
In Japan itself, the pacifists, the left-wing, Koizumi's political opponents, and some of the press remain opposed to the dispatch and will jump on any real or perceived mishaps to argue that Japan should return to the cocoon. Neutrality is still appealing among a people who dislike taking sides in anything.
Among Americans is a split mirroring that in Japan but with perhaps a majority applauding the Japanese for standing up and committing forces that will work alongside those of the United States. Successive Democratic and Republican secretaries of defense have urged Japan "to do more" in self-defense and mutual security.
James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told foreign correspondents in Washington last week that "we're just delighted" with what "should be a good, solid contribution" by the Japanese.
Kelly said that what role the Japanese would take was unclear because the situation is changing so rapidly. But, he said, "I am quite sure that most of those forces are going to find a way to be very helpful."
In Asia, critics of Japan's recent actions include those who remember the brutality of Japan's aggression in World War II and those with no personal memory of the war but who bash Japan in an effort to gain an advantage in current political and economic disputes.
Perhaps the most vocal of the critics are the North Koreans, who rarely engage in understatement.
"The Japanese reactionary ruling quarters are hell-bent on establishing a wartime system as evidenced by the legalization of the overseas dispatch pf the Self-Defense Forces," the official Rodong Sinmun said last week.
The article concluded: "Japan has emerged as the most dangerous aggressor and war force threatening the peace in Asia and the rest of the world." South Korea and China have expressed their reservations about Japan but in not quite such vivid terms.
Any careful and objective analysis of Japan's armed forces, defense policy and political climate would show that a resurgence of the Japanese militarism of yesteryear is so remote as to be out of sight.
Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org