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By Brian Bremner For years, it has been common wisdom that only some crisis, or shokku as the Japanese call it, would shake the nation out of its policy torpor. Well, in the post-Sept. 11 world, where every international financial center is a terrorist target and global recession is looming, Japan can no longer dither. And the truly amazing thing is that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, by and large, is rising to the task at hand with much popular support.
The warm reception and stroking he received in Washington this week -- plenty of face time with President George Bush in front of an international audience -- represents a quick reversal of fortune from what looked like a shaky Japanese policy response in the early days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
FORCEFUL ACTION. Koizumi was unfairly,in my view, criticized for waiting a day to issue his blistering condemnation on the perpetrators of the attack. Everyone expected the usual glacial round of consensus building by his ruling coalition members, followed by a vague commitment to do something, maybe write a check, but then hide behind Japan's war-renouncing Constitution. That would be a reprise of the checkbook foreign policy that caused Japan so much grief during the Gulf War. (It forked over $13 billion -- not a paltry sum -- but still took a lot of heat.)
This time around, though, Koizumi managed to ram through the Diet a pledge to dispatch the Self-Defense Force and ships to provide rearguard logistical support and gather intelligence in the Indian Ocean, an arena that may be a war zone in the coming months. The SDF will also help guard U.S. military installations from attack and provide Pakistan with $40 million.
That wasn't easy. Koizumi is a security hawk and wants to explore whether Japan's occupation-era Constitution is due for an overhaul that would give the country the right to defend itself and play a bigger role with the U.S. in managing the region's security. But many within his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party aren't so hawkish. And among the opposition parties, others are fearful of the implications of rearming Japan.
On top of that, it's becoming clear that Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka is clearly out of her depth. Though still immensely popular, she lacks the kind of mastery of policy detail about the U.S.-Japan relationship or the new threat of global terrorism to say anything intelligent about the challenge Japan confronts.
SUPPORTIVE PUBLIC. According to unfriendly press leaks from Japanese diplomats, who consider her a rank amateur, she offered to send helmets to U.S. rescue workers in New York in a telephone conversation with Secretary of State Colin Powell. One can only imagine how Powell reacted to that offer. Koizumi has basically cut her out of any serious deliberations on security matters on this score and would be wise to find another role for her in the government when the time is right.
Perhaps the most surprising turn of events is that Japan's normally pacifist public is strongly behind Koizumi. Opinion polls show that 70% of the public want Japan to step up to the plate this time and support Bush's declaration of war against terrorism. They, perhaps more than their political elites, know what's a stake. A homegrown millennial cult known as Aum Shinrikyo, after all, launched a sarin-gas attack on a Tokyo subway back in 1995. About a dozen people died in the most gruesome way, and scores more would have, too, if the cult had pulled off other planned attacks designed to bring down the Japanese government.
Does this really mark a sea change for Japanese foreign policy? "I think so, and public opinion is slowly changing," figures former Finance Vice-Minister Eisuke Sakakibara. "We need to become a normal nation." (See a Q&A with Sakakibara: "Those Terrorists Were Acting Globally")
He may be right. Japan insists that it will reconsider the role of the SDF once the terrorist threat is vanquished. But let's not kid ourselves: This is going to be a multiyear campaign, and once aboard, Japan isn't going to be able politically to pull out.
ANOTHER ROLE. Japan desperately needs to shore up its own home-defense system. It failed to prevent, let alone anticipate, the sarin attack. It was completely caught off guard when North Korea test fired missiles over Japan a few years ago. And reports are emerging that a dozen Islamic terrorist may have or will soon try to enter the archipelago. A terrorist attack in Tokyo on the scale of New York, at a time when the economy is so fragile, would paralyze the world's second-biggest economy, perhaps devastate it.
That's why the other role that Japan can play is to make sure that its economy -- the weakest link in the developed world -- doesn't compound the international loss of wealth in the wake of the attack. Koizumi is pushing ahead with a three-year plan to rid Tokyo money-center banks of their bad-debt burden. That will cause plenty of economic pain at a time when Japan is in recession and probably will require public money to back a workout vehicle similar to the U.S. Resolution Trust Corp., the entity that bought troubled loans from thrifts and sold off assets for whatever it could fetch.
Undoubtedly, Japan is going to be under enormous international pressure to make some bold and painful decisions that involve both blood and money. But early indications suggest that Koizumi and his advisers have a real opportunity to make some fundamental policy changes. And for those within and outside Japan who have grown frustrated with the slow decision-making that has usually been the defining feature of the country's politics, this truly may be a new world in which we live. Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BW Online