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Sixty Years After World War II, Japan Discusses Normalization

As the Japanese observe the 60th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Tokyo’s subsequent surrender to the allies, they are discussing political changes that were unthinkable just a few years ago. Derek Mitchell, a senior analyst at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, says many Japanese feel the time has come for their nation to shake off its pacifist status.

“They are now talking about changing their constitution to say that their self-defense forces actually constitute a military. And there is also a sense that perhaps Japan’s defense agency should be a full ministry, like any other country. So it is emerging out of its past, which was rather extraordinary and abnormal, into a more normal nation,” says Mr. Mitchell.

After World War II, occupied Japan had to dismantle its military and adopt a constitution that allows the use of arms only in case of an attack on its territory. Yuki Tatsumi, a research fellow with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center here in Washington, says the relatively low cost of its collective defense force enabled Japan to channel its resources to other areas. “Because Japan didn’t have to spend that much on defense, it was able to focus more on its economic development and it did lead to Japan’s rapid economic growth which really hit the high note in the 1980s,” says Ms. Tatsumi.

By the time its economy slowed in the 1990s, Japan was a major power, both in Asia and globally. The United States, Japan’s World War II adversary, is its staunch ally. Neighboring countries, once targeted by Japanese colonialists, are Tokyo’s major trading partners. Japan has been contributing to global peace-building efforts. And this year, it began a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. But since the 1990s, the stagnation of the Japanese economy, the rise of China and India, global terrorist attacks and North Korea’s provocations have shaken Japan from its pacifist complacency. Muthia Alagappa, Director of the East-West Center in Washington, says the 1991 Persian Gulf War was a major turning point. “The Japanese contribution was largely financial. They contributed some $11-12 billion, which is a large amount of money, but Japan never got recognition for that. Instead, Japan was blamed for not contributing in terms of blood,” he says.

Mr. Alagappa says the United States has put pressure on Japan to contribute military aid, including troops, toward international security efforts. But, he adds, the mood has changed in Tokyo as well, especially after 1998 when North Korea conducted ballistic missile tests over Japanese waters. Japan’s desire to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council is another reason, says Mr. Alagappa.

“If you are going to be a permanent member of the Security Council, then you have to partake in the collective enforcement efforts authorized by the Security Council. So there, I think, it’s very difficult for Japan not to play a role just like other countries; like China and the U.S. and so forth. So I think it becomes increasingly important for Japan to be able to play a role as part of Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter.”

Thus, even though the pacifist undercurrent remains strong among the Japanese public, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has responded to the U.S. request by sending several hundred troops to Iraq on a non-combat mission. And some Japanese leaders are now supporting a revision of the constitution to allow a more active military.

Derek Mitchell says there is no reason today why Japan’s armed forces and foreign policy should be constrained by a post-World War II mind set. “After 60 years, I think, time has passed and Japan is a new Japan. They’ve had a different history over the past 60 years," he says. "Asia is different. The U.S. has evolved. And I think what you are going to see is a more normal Japan. They are still undergoing the debates of how ‘normal’ they want to be, how much they want to break from the past,” says Mr. Mitchell. “I think they feel generally it has worked well for them, that they have become the second largest economy in the world during this period and why take on more of a security role and military role. But there is a growing sense of nationalist pride. Now they can recognize a national anthem and a national flag – only in the past couple of years. And they feel that perhaps they ought to have a sense of themselves more. And with that goes the military.”

Mr. Mitchell notes that Japan’s so-called self-defense force has grown over the years, and has ground, air and naval forces like most other states. “They have advanced destroyers. They have advanced fighter jets. They have been developing their missile defenses and submarines. They have pretty advanced capabilities that they are developing, in helicopter carriers, that are able to project power.” Derek Mitchell says Japan spends about 40 billion dollars a year on its armed forces, more than most other countries. So even if they call it differently, the Japanese posses a strong military, capable of flexing its muscle anywhere in the world.

But Japan’s neighbors, whose memories of Tokyo’s World War II atrocities are still fresh, are concerned about a more assertive Japan in the global community. Many analysts say Japan’s “normalization” is needed for the security and stability of the region. But, they say, the Japanese must also reassure their neighbors.

This story was broadcast as part of VOA's Focus series. To hear more Focus stories, please click here.