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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Japan reaches a crossroad

With all eyes on a rising India, an awakened China and a roiling Islam, we tend to take good old solid Japan (still the world's second-largest economy, please don't forget) as a given. But that is a mistake: These are the times that try Japan's soul.

This brilliant, proud society — both ancient and modernized — looks to be at yet another crossroads. Prime Minister Taro Aso has been ignominiously compelled to call a national election in August, even though all forecasts predict a possible landslide for the opposition: the Democratic Party of Japan.

If that happens, the long-leading Liberal Democratic Party that Aso temporarily heads would face the prospect of having itself become the opposition, at least for the foreseeable future. But this might be healthy for Japan: One true test of the vibrancy of a competitive democracy is smooth transition-making ability from one party to another.

Until now, Japan has been all but a one-party octopus rarely benefiting from muscular opposition. So rather than feeling diminished by the august calamity that everyone predicts, the LDP should take the longer, patriotic view and respect the right of the Japanese people to put them in their place, for the time being anyway.

Making exactly this point was none other than Junichiro Koizumi, the last LDP leader to serve out a full term — and surely the last one to show any real savvy as prime minister. According to the authoritative Oriental Economist, the New York-based journal of contemporary Japan politics, the flashy but effective retired superstar was quoted as saying: "Now is the toughest time for our party. But Japan is a democratic country, and it would be acceptable if we became an opposition party."

That wily Koizumi is right yet again: Hope only that the current political establishment LDP takes his advice and doesn't try to stuff ballot boxes or cause other kinds of trouble, an intervention many critics understand to have befallen the recent Iranian election. The electoral integrity of Japanese democracy is not just a source of pride for Japan, but a measure of comfort and security for the rest of Asia.

Here's why: Its neighbors will never forget the feral Japanese expansionism in World War II that came to an end with massive American intervention. Even today, America's contribution in reconstructing Japan as a nonmilitaristic nation stands as a rock of stability — and a lighthouse to reason — in the sea of Asian geopolitics. That the Japanese people have so consistently recertified a nonnuclear Japan with a low-profile military is not sufficiently appreciated worldwide. They deserve great credit.

But democracy sometimes produces change — bad as well as good. Should the Democratic Party of Japan in fact come to power, its leaders may begin a serious review of Japan's military posture. It appears that neither the party itself nor party chief Yukio Hatoyama fully accepts that Japan must remain supinely defensive. And now they have a good reason to endorse a policy review: It's called North Korea.

Its aggressive missile-testing and rhetoric-rocketing makes it possible for Tokyo to revisit Japan's military needs without appearing to be 21st century warmongers in disguise. The missile tests from this otherwise isolated and confused socialist regime have sent searing chills up the back of the Japanese people. They know for whom those missiles would presumably toll. And it's sure not for the Hawaiians.

The very fact that the unthinkable can now be openly thought should put new pressure on all responsible neighbors and allies not to take Japan's security concerns lightly. Thus, from China, Beijing needs to rethink its North Korean policy and make a pivotal, historic decision: How far down the road of loyalty to communist North Korea does it go if that policy triggers the remilitarization of Japan?

Sure, we understand that Beijing fears shoving North Korea into a destabilization that could be disruptive to the entire region. But look at it another way: Suppose Beijing's caution winds up pushing Tokyo under a new government into a fearsome militaristic (not to mention nuclear) direction? How exactly then would Beijing have come out ahead?

For its part, America, still Japan's closest ally, needs to engage in sincere and aggressive triangular diplomacy. This means not de-prioritizing Japan, even in an age when China is all the rage. But sometimes you wonder whether the new Obama administration gets the nuance: Just consider the inexplicable appointment of California lawyer (and big-time Obama campaign fundraiser) John Roos as the new U.S. ambassador to Tokyo. I'm sorry but this was lame. He was the best America could do for its most important Asian ally?

The Japanese claim they are ever so happy to receive a West Coast figure for once as America's ambassador. We certainly like West Coast figures, too, but there are plenty others here, of far greater stature, for whom Tokyo would have seemed the more respectful choice. And notice that the Japanese are almost always polite, no matter how trying the situation. But for the Japanese, make no mistake about it: These are very trying times indeed.

Syndicated columnist and veteran journalist Tom Plate, author of "Confessions of an American Media Man," is traveling in Asia. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center, Beverly Hills, Calif.

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