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Japan Looks at Ridding Military of Its Shackles

Proposed constitutional changes would give the armed forces of the pacifist nation higher status and facilitate deployments abroad.

November 23, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — In a momentous step toward casting off Japan's postwar humility, the governing Liberal Democratic Party unveiled proposed constitutional changes Tuesday that would give the country's military forces a higher status and ease their deployment abroad in the name of "collective self-defense."

The LDP blueprint for a new constitution signals Japan's determination to reemerge as a major strategic power, and is seen as Tokyo's answer to the challenge raised by China's growing influence. Though stopping short of tampering with the clause in the pacifist constitution that renounces Japan's right to wage war, the changes would allow the Japanese to participate fully in global peacekeeping missions, as well as come to the aid of allies such as the United States or Taiwan if required.

Constitutional amendments would put a Japanese imprimatur on a document written by the occupying American forces and unaltered since it was adopted in 1947. The most controversial amendments affect the armed forces, now humbly called the Self-Defense Forces, or SDF, but boasting 240,000 troops and a budget roughly comparable to that of Britain's military. The LDP draft calls for the SDF to be officially recognized as the military force it is, and for the defense agency that controls it to be elevated to full Cabinet rank.

The proposals mark the start of what is sure to be a contentious reform process over the next year, both at home and abroad. Changes require a two-thirds majority in parliament, as well as approval in a national referendum. Debate on the proposals is likely to spark national soul-searching about whether to discard the pacifist cloak that has served Japan so well since the end of World War II -- and which polls show is still supported, albeit more mutedly in recent years.

An even greater outcry is anticipated from neighboring countries such as China and South Korea, already troubled by what they see as Japan's reluctance to acknowledge the crimes of its imperial past and wary of any sign of renewed Japanese militarism.

But the draft constitution arrives with Japan in the throes of one of its rare but historically potent euphorias for reform. It was presented in the celebratory atmosphere of the convention marking the 50th anniversary of the LDP's founding, at a moment when the party has just been returned to power with a massive mandate to radically transform the state's economic and political role.

"In Japan's modern political history, two big reforms can be called miracles," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told his party. "One was the Meiji Restoration of 1867, and the other is the reform that came 60 years ago after the defeat in World War II." Now Japan must find a way to undertake radical changes again, Koizumi said, without the loss of "sacred lives" that marred the past episodes.

"How can we, in a peaceful way, implement reforms to deal with ongoing change around the globe?" he said. "That is the duty of this governing party."

For Koizumi and his generation of conservative allies now governing the country, amending the constitution is an essential step toward ending Japan's label as a "defeated" nation and allowing it to become a "normal" country again.

They argue that Japan deserves credit for its unblemished 60-year postwar record of pacifism and should be trusted to assume a security burden that matches its clout as the world's second-largest economy.

Such a change in status has backing from Washington, which would like to see a close ally tap its vast reservoir of air, sea and land forces for a greater security role in both Asia and the Middle East. Washington has encouraged Tokyo to remove the constitutional obstacles on deploying troops abroad, restrictions that have limited the small Japanese contingent in Iraq to humanitarian work.

But Tokyo has been stung by the hostile response from other countries to its bid for a permanent United Nations Security Council seat. The campaign to deny Japan such representation was spearheaded by China and South Korea, two of the countries Japan occupied in the first half of the 20th century. It also exposed the much broader global hostility toward Japan's desire to return to major-power status.

The international skepticism comes in large part from perceptions that Japan's leaders feel no remorse for the country's bloody imperial past, nor understand its legacy of enduring pain.

That impression has been fueled by Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan's war dead, including some of those who planned and executed the brutal pan-Asian conquests.

The anti-Japanese reaction has left Tokyo feeling friendless in the region, leading to Koizumi's decision to push Japan even deeper into an American embrace. In recent months, Washington and Tokyo have strengthened their defense ties, including a formal pledge to help each other defend Taiwan against Chinese attack.

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