Pacifist Japan Beefs Up Military ; the Island Nation's Neighbors Watch Closely, but Not All Experts See Reason for Alarm

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A rusty blue-green North Korean spy ship rigged to look like a squid boat has been a fantastic curiosity for months. Some 10,000 Japanese a day visit the boat, hauled from the ocean floor where it sank after being chased from Japanese into Chinese waters.

The small craft is not impressive. But it is useful for a Japan with a new and increasingly popular message: In a tough neighborhood and a dangerous world, Japan needs a strong military profile.

"I support a stronger defense," says a young leasing-company clerk visiting at lunch hour. "I'm sad to say we need to defend against kidnapping. But whatever we do, North Korea and China will say we are aggressive."

For the first time since 1945, Japan is openly planning a beefier military. Moreover, for a staunchly pacifist nation, home to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a debate about having nuclear weapons, unthinkable a few years ago, is now thinkable.

Japanese defense plans include long-range refueling for fighter jets, new transport planes, and a joint US-Japanese $7 billion sea- based missile system. A Defense Agency "white paper" issued last week calls for new antiballistic missile defenses, special commando units, and for Japan to regularly join UN peacekeeping operations, as it is preparing to do in Iraq.

More striking is the nuclear talk. Tokyo's No. 2 defense chief was sacked in 2001 for mentioning nuclear weapons. But things have changed. This spring Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said it was "not necessarily unconstitutional" for Japan to use "limited" tactical nuclear weapons in its defense.

The military issue runs deeply into how Japanese identity has, and hasn't, emerged in the past half-century. Will Japan become a "normal nation" - to use the oft-cited term of art?

The issue also runs directly through "the bilateral relationship," or US-Japan relations - which have set the tone for decades. (The US, which bases 50,000 troops here, has long urged greater self defense for Japan; but not a nuclear capability.)

Changes in Japan echo loudly in Asia. With a question mark today on whether Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will visit Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which holds the ashes of soldiers designated as war criminals, Japan's moves are fodder for suspicion in China and the Koreas. They endured a brutal occupation long before Pearl Harbor, which Americans think of as the start of World War II.

Yet does a defense build up in the Japan of 2003 represent a threat?

Given current realities, the answer is a resounding "no," Asian experts say.

Japan is closely integrated into an Asian economy; and there is no "imperial drive" in Tokyo - that led Japan to colonize and dominate Asia from Manchuria to Burma.

In practical military terms, Japan lacks what is known as "strategic depth." It could not sustain a war. Its army is the smallest in the region. Japan will reduce its force to 150,000 next year. South Korea has 400,000 troops; North Korea has a million; China, two million. "Japan can't invade anybody," as a US military strategist notes. In an era of missiles Japan is vulnerable as a target. "Four nuclear devices, lobbed on Osaka or Tokyo, could destroy most of Japan's industrial base," notes the US official.

"Japan's militarization is not a threat," argues Brad Glosserman, director of research at CSIS in Honolulu. …