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JAPAN: ECHOES OF WORLD WAR II : Next Step : A Reluctant Superpower Agonizes Over Military : The prospect of getting a Security Council veto doesn't thrill Tokyo, which fears it may be forced to send its troops abroad.


TOKYO — For nearly any country, the prospect of winning a permanent seat, with veto power, on the United Nations Security Council would be a welcome symbol of international influence and power. Not so for Japan.

Here, the issue of whether to seek the U.N. seat has divided a nation that is still trying to bring World War II to a close 50 years after the fighting ended. Many Japanese, haunted by the memories of the war and the authoritarian military rule that produced it, fear that their country would be forced to engage in military operations overseas that it has avoided for half a century.

To outsiders and some Japanese as well, Japan often casts an image of a nation unable to confront its past and apologize openly to the victims of its aggression, thus creating suspicions that it once again might exercise military power over Asia as it did in World War II.

But the reality of present-day Japan remains a nether-nether land of heiwa-boke , or peace-senility--"a stupefied feeling of the last 50 years . . . that Japan has become divorced from military activities," as the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, put it.

To the Asahi Shimbun, chief rival of the Yomiuri, that is the way Japan should be. "We want to aim at becoming a conscientious-objector nation," the Asahi wrote in an editorial in May. An Asahi poll showed that 69% of the respondents feared that Japan would be asked to perform military roles if the nation took a permanent seat on the Security Council. If so, 57% said they didn't want the seat.

Fear of being coerced into a military role has induced Japan to attach so many conditions to assuming a permanent seat that it has been accused by non-Japanese observers of "waiting for the seat to be served on a silver tray," noted Yoshio Hatano, one of Tokyo's former U.N. ambassadors.

Various formulas have been raised at the United Nations to bring Japan and Germany, World War II's defeated Axis powers and postwar economic giants, to the Security Council as permanent members, joining the postwar Big Five--the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France--and perhaps others.

Only last year did Japan declare directly that it was "ready to assume the responsibility" of permanent membership on the Security Council.

That Japan is seeking support from other nations for a Security Council candidacy does, at least, mark a step away from the isolationist pacifism that dominated most of the postwar period.

As a result of the political humiliation Japan suffered from its inability to commit any personnel to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the nation approved a law in 1992 authorizing for the first time since 1945 the dispatch of troops overseas, but only for noncombat peacekeeping missions.

According to Kazuo Chiba, former ambassador to London, Japan adapted itself to the dictates of the United States during its postwar occupation of Japan.

"It was not just that we were fearful of the memory of the war but also because we wanted to assure . . . the United States. [It] wanted us to disarm, and have a disarmed mentality," Chiba said. Only since the Persian Gulf War has Japan begun to adapt to a world in which it is no longer expected to devote itself to a strictly non-military role, he added.

"It took us a long, long time to get [to where we are today], and we still haven't climbed Mt. Fuji," he said. "We're still about only 30% of the way from the bottom."

Not until 1990 were schools required to display the flag and play the anthem at ceremonies. Despite the requirement, one in every four high schools still refuses to play the anthem, according to one survey.

Neither foreign policy nor security affairs has escaped.

Even the euphemism--"Self Defense Forces" instead of "armed forces"--has been given substance by Japan's studied refusal to equip itself with offensive weaponry. For example, Japan has no aircraft carriers. Its fighter aircraft lack mid-air refueling equipment. And for half a century, alone among the major industrial powers of the world, Japan has exported no weapons.

Japan's propensity to turn the other cheek toward constant criticism from China and North and South Korea is a result of its memories of the war on the Asian mainland and its 35-year colonization of the Korean peninsula.

Japan and China "have not yet reached the point where we can say to each other what we really want to say," said a high-ranking Japanese diplomat.

In security policy, "Japan abandoned its military independence, pledging that it would not use its armed forces for national objectives and providing bases cheaply for the United States to pursue its Asian and world strategies. In exchange, the United States agreed to protect Japan completely," Motono noted.

As a result, "diplomacy since the war has been marked by complacency," he said. "We didn't have the leeway to take an independent policy."

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