Is Japanese Militarism Back?

Japan's barbaric conduct during WWII--and the Allies' nuclear retaliation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki--laid the foundation for the US-imposed pacifism that has reigned since the war's end. The Self-Defense Forces (SDF) that emerged during the 1950's were designed (in theory) only to defend Japan from attack. Offensive missions were forbidden by the Constitution.

But Japan now has in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a leader who wants the country to be militarily proactive. Koizumi holds a majority in both houses of the Diet, Japan's parliament, and despite the continuing popularity of pacifism, he intends the SDF to become capable of ``preventive self defense''--a form of offensive action in all but name. That proposal is uniting Japan's opposition parties against him.

Indeed, the dispatch of Japanese peacekeepers under UN command to Cambodia in 1992 (the first time the 240,000-strong SDF had ventured on a mission abroad) was bitterly contested. While Japanese warships' logistical support during the recent Afghan conflict was a no-risk operation, that may not be true of the SDF's latest venture--participation in reconstruction in ``pacified zones'' in Iraq.

Japan's growing willingness to flex its muscles overseas is reflected in the changing face of the SDF. The Koizumi government plans to add two new 13,500-ton warships, both capable of carrying helicopters and of being converted to take jump jets to strike enemy territory. Similarly, a 6,000-man commando unit will be recruited not only to confront outbreaks of domestic terrorism, but also to provide the air-landed component for the new ship-based helicopter squadrons.