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Japan Mulls Missile Defense Capability

In wake of the missile tests by North Korea last week, Japanese politicians have begun discussing whether the country should have the capability to counter-attack foreign bases if it is threatened. At present, Japan has to rely on its ally, the United States, to thwart any threats. 

The splashdown of seven North Korean missiles into the Sea of Japan on July 5 is causing Japanese leaders to re-evaluate the country's defense.

A number of conservative politicians say the time has come for Japan to look at having the ability to attack foreign missile bases, particularly in North Korea.

Such discussions would have been taboo for most of Japan's post-World War II history, when the country's pacifist Constitution was more strictly interpreted. But a 1998 ballistic missile launch by North Korea and Japan's role in the global war on terrorism have loosened interpretations of the Constitution's Article 9, which renounces war.

In recent days, senior politicians have let loose a barrage of hawkish comments.

Tsutomu Takebe, the secretary general of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, says it would be unthinkable for Japan to just sit and wait for a missile to land on it. He says the country has to begin preparing for such an eventuality and to explain the issue to the public.

That sort of talk is bound to anger not only North Korea, at whom it is aimed, but also other countries where memories of Japan's brutal 20th century colonialism have not faded, notably China and South Korea. Both have charged that Japanese militarism is reviving and both say Tokyo has never properly atoned for its past.

In response to North Korea's missile tests, Japan has taken a tough stance, demanding United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang. Beijing and Seoul, however, want a less strident action.

The United States has been working to create a united response to the launches from the four countries. Washington has backed Japan on sanctions but says it is willing to see if diplomatic efforts by Seoul and Beijing lead to a breakthrough with North Korea.

In Japan, the LDP's tough talk makes the political left nervous. Although the strength of leftist parties in Japan has waned over the past 20 years, they still are a force in Parliament and will attempt to block what they see as any move back toward militarism.

Tadayoshi Ichida, secretary general of the Japan Communist Party, which holds 18 seats in Parliament, says the idea is unacceptable because a pre-emptive strike would be unconstitutional. He says such moves could also lead to Japan becoming enmeshed in an endless regional arms race.

Even the Liberal Democratic Party's coalition partner has reservations. The head of the Komei party, Tadanori Kanzaki, urges caution.

Kanzaki says firing on an enemy base could start a war. That alone, he adds, should give pause.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi endorses the idea of thoroughly debating the issue.

The prime minister says the constitutional aspects need to be carefully discussed. But he says one problem that is obvious to him initially is how to tell if another country is really preparing to attack.

However, Mr. Koizumi appears to be leaning in the direction of the hawks, saying he believes that Japan needs its own deterrence capability.

Tokyo already has committed to spending billions of dollars to join with the United States in developing a system to shoot down missiles launched from abroad before they hit the country. But Japan has never developed any capability to attack missile bases because the U.S. has pledged to provide such protection. 

Those on both sides of the debate go back into Japan's post-war history to back their arguments.

Defense Agency officials say as early as 1956 the government informed lawmakers that if there was no other way to defend Japan from a missile attack, then firing on enemy bases was within the country's legal right.

Opponents point to a 1959 decision not to develop such capability based on the argument that the Americans who wrote the Constitution after Japan's defeat in World War II never intended for it to have weapons that could threaten another country.

The debate could go on for years, which means that Japan is a long way from being able to attack missile bases in North Korea or any other country. Tokyo will therefore continue relying on the United States to counter any threat.

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