The Last Word: Japan's Move To Normality

A dragonfly flitted in front of me and stopped on a fence. I stood up, took my cap in my hands, and was about to catch the dragonfly when ...

--From "Children of the Atomic Bomb: Testament of Boys and Girls of Hiroshima"

HIROSHIMA--"When" was the first time in history that thousands of people were killed in an instant. "When" was 8:15 a.m., 61 summers ago. In the B-29 Enola Gay, the copilot, keeping a flight log, wrote: "There will be a short intermission while we bomb our target." Next, in a wild hand, he wrote "My God!"

People who worry about a revival of Japanese militarism do not fathom history's grip on the only nation that has experienced nuclear war, a nation still reading newspaper stories about the ailments and entitlements of hibakusha --survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. But a revival of nationalism--the belief that Japan should have international stature and responsibilities commensurate with its economic prowess--is overdue.

Today in this glistening port city where the nuclear age began, the light standards of the Hiroshima Carp's 49-year-old ballpark loom over the skeleton of the dome--now known as the A-bomb dome--of what used to be a civic building. It is the symbolic remnant of the city that was. The city that is has achieved what Japan longs for--normality. Many Japanese want their nation to rise from the post-1945 apologetic crouch that has made even patriotism problematic. A proposal to amend the basic law on education--written during the American occupation--to mandate that "love of country" be encouraged by public-school curricula is opposed by one party in the current coalition government, and by a Buddhist organization whose memories of persecution during the war make it adamantly opposed to any government-supervised patriotism.

Still, Japan will no longer accept the assumption that, because of an inexpungible war guilt, it is somehow forever ineligible for its own form of nationalism. The question is what form that will be. Many Japanese yearn for their nation to move up from "economism." Up, that is, from a national identity largely defined by economic achievements, and from an international role largely reduced to writing checks to help pay, as in the 1991 Gulf War, for the exertions of other nations. Normality will require revision of Japan's constitutional pacifism--this constitutional provision imposed in 1947:

"Article 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

"(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized."

Although you can walk around Tokyo for days and never see a military uniform, revision of Article 9 would be a bow to reality: Japan's Self-Defense Forces are 252,000 strong, technologically sophisticated--particularly the Navy--and supported by a defense budget larger than Britain's or Germany's. As a small step toward normality, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has proposed upgrading the Defense Agency to full cabinet status. Even that has elicited complaints from China and South Korea, regional rivals of Japan which have their own--largely domestic--reasons for feigning anxiety about a recrudescence of Japanese expansionism. Both nations know that Japan has no aircraft carriers, which are indispensable for any modern nation with ambitious plans for projecting military power. Furthermore, as a droll Japanese scholar writes, Japan's most pressing problem is an aging population, and "an aggressive nationalism of geriatrics would indeed be a historic feat."

Nevertheless, The Wall Street Journal recently warned that North Korea could provoke Japan to become a nuclear power: "No one knows how long it would take Japan to go nuclear, though estimates are days or weeks ... If North Korea continues to defy the world and the world continues to do nothing, a more militarily assertive, and probably nuclear-armed, Japan is inevitable."

The International Atomic Energy Agency, too, evidently suspects that Japan is susceptible to the nuclear temptation: The IAEA spends more than a fifth of its worldwide inspection budget on Japan. There will, however, be negligible support for acquiring nuclear weapons as long as Japan continues to feel secure under the U.S. defense umbrella. So central to Japan's sense of well-being is America's "extended nuclear deterrence," Japan is reticent about any misgiving it has about U.S. policies. This is partly because, as one Japanese intellectual says, Japan knows it should "not argue with the United States in front of North Korea."

Sixty-one summers ago, this city heard a noise never heard before. Today, it is having a noisy argument about whether public money should be spent on a new ballpark for the Carp. To American ears, that sounds like normality.