TOKYO — Midway through a genteel, abstract discussion about America and Asia here last month, a Japanese businessman suddenly launched into a tirade about the difficulties his company was having in China.
The Chinese make promises and don't keep them, he fumed. They sign contracts and then try to change the terms.
I started to tune out. Over the years, I've heard a zillion similar complaints. Doing business in China is legendarily frustrating. Nothing new about that.
What came next, however, was unexpected and jolting.
"The problem is that we don't have a strong enough military!" the Tokyo executive went on. "If Japan had real armed forces, the Chinese wouldn't treat us like that."
The man's logic was faulty. (America spends about $300 billion a year for the world's strongest military, and that doesn't ensure U.S. businesses an easy time in China.)
Yet this Japanese businessman, in his own flawed way, was pointing to probably the most important change in East Asia over the next decade.
Japan is gradually ending the limits on the use of military power that were adopted after World War II. It is becoming what is commonly called a "normal" nation once again. It is slowly reducing its dependence on the United States in matters of security and foreign policy.
And Japan, the rest of Asia and the United States all are nervously groping to figure out what this change will mean.
Japanese officials are studying the possibility of changing the constitution to repeal the famous American-drafted Article 9, in which Japan renounced the sovereign right to wage war.
These days, the movement to ease the restraints on Japanese military power can be detected across the political spectrum.
It was no surprise when Japan's most nationalistic political leader, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, said two weeks ago that Article 9 was "not what we wanted" and should be thrown out.
But that same week, Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition party, indicated that he too favors amending the Japanese Constitution at least a little bit.
Hatoyama said he thought that in the future, Japanese troops ought to be able to use their weapons to help restore peace. That would be a big change from the recent past; at the time of the U.N. peacekeeping operations in East Timor, Japan did not take part because its troops might have been required to resort to force in apparent violation of the Japanese Constitution.
Japan's evolution has considerable support in Washington. This fall, a bipartisan study group that included two former Pentagon officials, Richard L. Armitage and Joseph S. Nye Jr., concluded that Japan's restrictions on the use of military power are "a constraint" on the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
"It is time for burden-sharing [between the United States and Japan] to evolve into power-sharing," said the report--which was, notably, signed by several candidates for top jobs in a new Bush administration.
America's willingness to countenance the legitimizing of Japanese military power itself represents a significant change. During the last Bush administration, some top officials quietly clung to the post-World War II view that America ought to keep Japan's armed forces under wraps.
"It's a bad idea for us to encourage Japan's military capability when it's primarily done to avoid our own budget expenditures," former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft told The Times in an interview last year.
By now, the talk about Japan becoming a "normal nation" has gone on for nearly a decade--long enough so that, from a distance, you might think the idea would no longer be so sensitive.
But as the reality approaches, you can feel the undercurrents of emotion and history here. That's why a Japanese businessman develops unrealistic fantasies about a more compliant China. That's why a Japanese diplomat issues a private warning about letting "the guys in uniform" have too much power.
No one knows where the changes in Japan will lead. U.S. policymakers may turn out to be quixotic in their quest for an equal partnership between Washington and Tokyo.
Their assumption seems to be that the new "normal" Japan will have many of the same aims in Asia as does the U.S.
In the short run, that may well be true. But is America really prepared yet for a Japan that assertively promotes its own interests in places like, say, Myanmar or Indonesia--muchless China or Russia?
Then too some specialists predict that once Japan really has an independent foreign policy, the difficulty will be not that Japan throws its weight around but that it will be less assertive than the United States would like.
Paul Giarra, formerly Japan director at the Pentagon, said recently that American policymakers seem to hope Japan will stand with the United States in coping with China's growing power.
But that won't happen, Giarra predicted. "Japan won't be there for us in dealing with China in the future," he warned. "It's too hard for them."
One way or another, Japan's attitude toward its armed forces is in flux. The old postwar restrictions are coming off. That's inevitable. But for Asians and Americans alike, it's also a very big deal.