But at exactly the same moment when Okuyama was promoting Japan's multilateralism, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was across town paying his respects at Yasukuni Shrine—a highly controversial memorial to Japan's war dead, including an assortment of convicted war criminals. Although Koizumi later bafflingly claimed that his visit was designed to "reaffirm our antiwar position," most observers declared it a foolishly provocative affront to South Korea and China—the very nations Japan was supposedly reaching out to. By the time the evening news hit the airwaves, the prospect of Japan organizing an international peace coalition was dead.
The spectacle of Japan shooting itself in the foot isn't novel these days. But Koizumi's visit to the shrine raised a bigger question at a time when North Korea's nuclear gambit has threatened the entire North Asian security arrangement: Is Japan spooked enough to start rattling its own sword, one that's been carefully sheathed since its defeat in World War II? The U.S. made Japan demilitarize and democratize, and wrote a new constitution forcing its leadership to "renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation." And yet last December the Japanese destroyer Kirishima set sail for the Indian Ocean to support Washington's war on terror. Tokyo also recently announced that it expects to launch its first spy satellites by the end of March—another sign that Japan is now unashamedly assertive when it comes to self-defense. In the past, the argument that Japan should remilitarize was trumpeted chiefly by noisy nationalists wearing Rising Sun headbands. Now, it's becoming more mainstream not only at home but abroad. Earlier this month, U.S. Senator John McCain suggested the country develop nuclear weapons of its own.
Until recently, even the suggestion that Japan take up arms—for virtually any reason—was taboo. As late as 1978, Joint Staff Council Chairman Hiromi Kurisu was sacked for his seemingly reasonable comment that the country's military—pointedly called the Self-Defense Force (SDF) might take "extralegal" measures if the homeland ever came under surprise attack. Any Japanese politician who so much as suggested amending the pacifist clause of the constitution was effectively committing career suicide. Shinichi Kitaoka, a law professor and diplomatic history expert at the University of Tokyo, says the government "long ago decided that its hold on power will be more secure if it stays away from the military question." And the U.S. guaranteed Japan's security, with its own bases scattered around the archipelago, tens of thousands of soldiers in South Korea and, until 1992, major installations in the Philippines.
Japan actually began transforming the SDF into a proper military more than a decade ago. To get around legal constraints and a national queasiness about war, Japan's pro-military contingent learned the strength of the flanking maneuver: rather than take on a battle over a constitutional amendment, the government stealthily broadened the SDF's powers through incremental legislation, mostly since the 1991 Gulf War. During that conflict, Japan suffered international ridicule for not sending armed forces to the Middle East. Japan explained that its constitution forbade participation, but the rest of the world saw a nation of "economic animals" buying off its global obligations with a check. To head off similar humiliations, the Diet—Japan's parliament—passed a law in June 1992 allowing the SDF to participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations. Since then, Japan's soldiers have crept slowly yet more confidently onto the global stage from Bosnia to Rwanda, with world events providing ample justification for the country's legislators to broaden the SDF's ambit.
Instead of amending the pacifist clause, it has proved easier to ignore it. Just weeks after 9/11, the Diet passed the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law, which authorized the SDF to support international antiterrorist activities overseas. Under that legislation, the Kirishima was sent to the Indian Ocean—an interpretation of antiterrorism that some believe stretches Japan's constitution to its very limit. Says law professor Kitaoka: "Remilitarization is indeed going on, but no one is willing to take on the task of changing the legal framework." In fact, many legal experts claim that a number of the recent military laws are unconstitutional, yet no serious challenge to declare them as such or repeal them has reached a higher court.
The buildup isn't a quick, ostentatious accumulation and display of military might, even in the face of such unsettling news as North Korea's attempt to assemble nuclear weapons. And the process isn't likely to speed up soon, in part because any dramatic move to create a full-fledged military with significant offensive capabilities would cause a diplomatic furor. Such a move would also require the tacit blessing of China—hardly likely as long as Koizumi continues to indulge in provocations like visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. Further-more, Japan already labors under a government debt that tops 130% of GDP, giving it scant fiscal justification for a military buildup.
Despite the bellicose rhetoric coming out of North Korea, most Japanese remain relatively unconcerned about the possibility of a nuclear attack. They still believe that the U.S. will protect them from Pyongyang's threatened "sea of fire." But Japan's political leaders do worry about the peninsula: as they see it, a breakthrough in relations between North and South Korea that freezes out Japan and the U.S. would be a regional disaster. Indeed, many people believe that the Japanese government would rewrite the peace constitution if faced with a real prospect of Korean unification or of the U.S. withdrawing its troops from South Korea. "A unified Korea, if it turns more pro-China than pro-Japan, would be intolerable from Japan's perspective," says Takashi Inoguchi, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo. For now, the world is still not dangerous enough for Japan to crank up its military machine. But that could change—and a nation's allergy toward combat could be cured overnight.