For the first time since the end of the World War II, Japanese naval ships are sea bound on a foreign assignment. Their mission in the Persian Gulf is to clear mines that threaten the safe passage of commercial ships. The welcome action--even though it comes two months after the end of the Gulf War--shows Tokyo's new willingness to assume an expanded international role.
That's a significant departure from the checkbook diplomacy that disappointed so many of Japan's friends during the Mideast crisis. Until now, Japanese leaders, including current Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, have pegged the country's foreign policy to providing economic aid. But that backfired badly during the Gulf War. Despite a $13-billion contribution to the Gulf effort and a constitution that seemingly prohibits the use of troops overseas, Tokyo was roundly criticized for not having a presence in the Gulf. In dispatching last week four minesweepers and two support ships, manned by Maritime Self Defense Forces, Tokyo was careful not to forsake the constitutional ban against deploying forces overseas for combat. The minesweepers were activated under a law that allows the Japanese navy to use them.
Kaifu called the action a "contribution to international society" in peacetime to ensure the safe passage of Japanese ships in the Gulf. Minesweeping operations are there from the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, and Germany, which is under similar constitutional restraints.
Tokyo is moving with characteristic caution but its policy shift reflects an emerging consensus within Japan. Japanese business had been calling for Tokyo's help in clearing the Gulf. Polls in Japan showed a surprising majority supported the use of minesweepers. The formal cease-fire in the Gulf made the decision easier and the strong showing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in recent elections afforded Kaifu an opportune moment for a policy shift.
Tokyo also is setting the stage to assume a greater noncombat role in international peace-keeping efforts sponsored by the United Nations. Although Kaifu failed to secure support in Parliament for his U.N. peace cooperation bill to send noncombat troops to the Gulf last fall, Tokyo informally has talked about ways that Japan can do its share in future international peace efforts. Japanese civilians have participated as U.N. election observers in Afghanistan, Namibia and Nicaragua. Tokyo wants to be ready for the next U.N. peace effort, which will likely be in Cambodia.
There are some who worry that Tokyo may be taking a first step toward militarization. But there's little reason to doubt Japan's abiding pacifism, which is the legacy of World War II. Hatred for war clearly is compatible with the greater peacekeeping role Japan seems ready to play.