Japan is a close friend and ally of the United States, and a crucial strategic military partner in Asia. But if the going got rough, and, say, North Korea attacked U.S. forces somewhere in the Pacific, could we count on Japanese military support?
The answer might surprise you: No, Japan would not rush to America's side. This has been the case since the American occupation after World War II, when Japan renounced the right to wage war as part of a new constitution written under the guidance of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The peace constitution made sense as part of an American decision to demilitarize a country that had attacked and threatened nearly half the globe. MacArthur talked of Japan becoming "the Switzerland of Asia." That idea held up through the Cold War, as the U.S. took primary responsibility for defending the region. Japan remained safe under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, while American troops and ships based there did the heavy lifting of projecting force and keeping the peace.
It was a pretty good deal for Japan, which could focus on building its economy. But in the more complex post-Cold War era, the commitment not to project its military forces became an obstacle to Japan's ability to contribute to its security alliance with America. It was downright uncomfortable during the 1991 Iraq War when the most Japan could do was offer $13 billion to help foot the bill. "Checkbook diplomacy" was the rueful description. Japan did send noncombat troops to Iraq in 2004, after the U.S. invasion.
So it is appropriate that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking a significant, though still very cautious, step. He proposes reinterpreting what's allowed under Article 9 of Japan's constitution to permit - for the first time - some direct military cooperation between Japanese self-defense forces and the U.S. military or other partners.
The move has been a long time coming, primarily because of North Korea's belligerence. But it's likely no coincidence Abe is pushing now, in the era of a rising China. Japan may need to ask the U.S. to make a show of support over a territory dispute in the South China Sea. It will be more effective if that request came with an implicit promise from Japan to help if things went sour.
What Abe seeks is legislative approval to engage in "collective defense" with allies. Without that ability, Japan's alliances are hamstrung. Now the country can step up, likely in a way that will mirror Germany, which participates in NATO but abhors any whiff of military adventurism.
Abe says the reinterpretation of Japan's constitution won't change Japan's basic stance, which gives Japan the right to self-defense using the minimum necessary force. There will be no participation in any far-off conflict. But now "self-defense" will be expanded to include protecting close allies, especially if there is a danger to Japan.
The specifics aren't entirely clear, but analysts say the most likely situations would involve Japan providing logistical support for U.S. operations and training for those contingencies. So if things turned tense somewhere in the Pacific, Japan could supply American forces with ammunition and fuel, share intelligence or provide minesweeping operations to keep shipping lanes open, and do it under joint command. A more robust Japanese military should help to keep the peace in Asia by serving as a deterrence.
There has been some worry expressed in Japan and elsewhere in Asia that Abe is sending the country down the wrong path. But the opposition has been muted and there is sufficient political support in Japan. U.S. officials are supportive. No wonder: The U.S. military is stretched thin and needs the help.
Symbolically, this will be a big moment for a country with a complex legacy. Japan has a dark past, and in countries such as South Korea, there remains lingering suspicion over Japan's acceptance of its culpability in World War II. Koreans, for example, are incensed that Japan re-examined its apology for using wartime sex slaves. The apology will stand, Japan said last month.
Japan embraced a form of pacifism following the world war that developed into a modern sense of national pride, and that isn't likely to diminish. Sequestering itself militarily is no longer necessary. Japan will join its allies as a greater partner in security.