Smoke Alarm

Parked on a beach overlooking the Sea of Japan, two lovers spot something bobbing in the midnight surf. At first it looks like a capsized fishing boat, but as they move closer the vessel reveals itself to be a tiny submarine. Panicked, they report the incursion by cell phone and tear off in their sport utility vehicle. Before police arrive to investigate, 11 infiltrators unload heavy weapons and disappear into the bush. They leave behind a portrait of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in their sub and discarded images of a Japanese nuclear power plant. The attack on Japan has begun.

This fictional invasion unfolds on the pages of Iku Aso's tech-war thriller, "Declaration of War." But the premise--and bloody outcome--are eerily plausible. Aso's Japan is hamstrung by its pacifist Constitution, gutless politicians and rudderless military. In his story, local police delay calling the Self-Defense Force, a rival institution. When two outgunned officers are shot dead, the government dispatches thousands of SDF troops to storm in with orders "to fight back only when attacked." As a result, the North Koreans control the tempo of battle with deadly effect, killing or wounding more than 40 people before the last commando falls. Could it happen? According to defense experts, absolutely. In fact, senior national-security officials gave the author some of the most damning details of the scenario to publicize their private fear: that Japan, which spends more per year on its military than any country except the United States, is ill prepared to fight a modern war.

That raises the big question that Japan has avoided for more than 50 years: to what extent should the nation prepare to fight its own wars? Since its disastrous military adventures in the first half of this century, Japan has virtually cowered under a pacifist Constitution that "forever renounces war as a sovereign right." The postwar generation rose from the rubble and flourished as a U.S. protectorate, sheltered by U.S. arms against the threat from the Soviet Union. Now the cold war is over--and so is the clarity of those years. Facing new threats ranging from North Korean missiles to pirates in its shipping lanes--and confronting above all the growing power of China--Japan's policymakers have quietly begun to redraw their nation's military profile. And in East Asia, for Japan even to think about a new role for its armed forces is enough to set off shock waves all along the Pacific Rim.

Tokyo's neighbors already are raising alarms. With memories of Imperial Japan's bloody conquests still vivid, politicians from Seoul to Surabaya view Tokyo's new defense debate as a smoke screen for rearmament. In a February editorial, Seoul's Korea Herald urged Tokyo to "suppress the temptation to reemerge as a military superpower" as it responds to North Korea's missile threat. Speaking with foreign journalists over dinner in Beijing recently, a senior Chinese official decried the U.S.-Japan alliance as a cold-war relic, adding: "Look at what Japan has done. They came to Nanjing and slaughtered our people out of friendship and didn't apologize. I don't think the Chinese people can ever forget that."

So far, Japan's reassessment does not merit panic. Tokyo's partners in Washington have long urged their quiescent allies to take a greater role in regional defense. Japanese public opinion is now weighing in. This month alone, the influential magazine Bungeishunju has offered up a round-table debate on "The Second Korean War," while the mass-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun kicked off a page-one series under the rubric "How Safe Is Japan?"

In response, the government will continue to honor the peace Constitution. But it will read the old rules to permit more assertive ways to support U.S. forces--short of taking a leading combat role. The national Parliament, the Diet, already is drawing up a new set of defense guidelines. In peacetime, the rule changes would attempt to expand Japan's diplomatic role in the region. In war, they would require Tokyo to open military bases, civilian airfields and hospitals to U.S. forces, conduct mine-sweeping and ship inspections on the high seas and supply frontline U.S. troops.

None of this will slip by without debate. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is pushing hard for lower-house approval of the new guidelines before Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi visits Washington in late April. But the LDP's parliamentary majority is razor thin, and the unresolved questions are many. For example, who has the final authority to mobilize troops? Could Tokyo launch pre-emptive strikes to thwart an aggressor like North Korea? And should Japan take a greater role in U.N.-sanctioned military operations far beyond East Asia?

Questions about the use of military power have bedeviled Japan since 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed a flotilla of U.S. warships to the mouth of Tokyo Bay and opened Japan to trade. In response, Japan launched a national modernization drive, building new factories, railroads, ports and cities--all in a bid to stand equal to the West. Militarism was an inevitable offshoot. In 1894, Japan easily won a brief war with China and took Taiwan as reparation. As its imperial armies grew ever more powerful, Tokyo annexed Korea in 1910, invaded Manchuria in 1931, swept southward through China in 1936 and finally sent its planes against the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

After the war, American occupation forces moved swiftly to eradicate all vestiges of militarism, a change many war-weary Japanese embraced. Schools were made to teach pacifism, a philosophy that still holds sway in classrooms across Japan (sidebar). Yet in 1951, with the Korean War raging and the cold-war battle lines drawn, Tokyo and Washington signed the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. It created the SDF to protect Japan's national boundaries and gave U.S. troops permanent bases for their confrontation against the Soviet Union.

In the field, the old rules still apply. Take North Wind, an annual cold-weather exercise held last month on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. The live-fire maneuvers paired U.S. soldiers from Alaska and the Oregon National Guard with elements of Japan's Northern Army. Camped side by side in subzero temperatures, the allies traded field rations, drilled together on firing ranges and attacked enemy bunkers in knee-deep snow. For the finale, both armies choreographed a complex battlefield maneuver, called "passing of lines," in which one army sets a defensive perimeter then allows a second army to surge through it to attack the enemy. The aim is to move one force past another without lowering defenses or subjecting troops to friendly fire.

The maneuver goes well, but the exercise itself is an antique: its scenario is still the defense of Japan against the Soviet Union, an enemy that faded away nearly a decade ago. With Russia's Far East deployments now at roughly half their 1989 levels, North Wind is as much a relic as Moscow's rusty Pacific Fleet. For the U.S. troops, the effort still is worthwhile: skills honed in Hokkaido apply to battle scenarios in North Korea. But for SDF soldiers, forbidden to deploy overseas except as peacekeepers, the drill is mostly make-believe. And while training to fight a nonexistent enemy, Japanese troops have not been taught new techniques like tracking infiltrators, countering chemical-tipped missiles, liberating hostages or evacuating civilians. "We haven't done such training," admits a Japanese officer between rounds of mortar fire. "We will keep the defense of Japan as our scenario until someone tells us otherwise."

Japan's pilots are stuck in a similar holding pattern: they fly the world's most advanced warplanes--but they use operational plans of the U.S. Air Force circa 1960. In those days, U.S. fighters defended American airspace against Russian bombers sent over the North Pole. Today, Japanese pilots still fly two- and four-plane patrols, a classic defensive formation conceived to intercept lumbering bombers dispatched from Russia's Far East. Yet in a region where advanced Russian-made warplanes pose a threat from China and North Korea, tomorrow's air combat could involve scores of supersonic aircraft colliding in a chaotic jumble--an environment Japanese pilots are not permitted to simulate. As a result, says an American wing commander who routinely trains against SDF pilots, "their ability to react rapidly is substantially reduced."

Don't blame the generals. In a postwar backlash against rogue militarism, Japanese politicians demanded the final say on all military affairs great and small. Before Japanese troops joined United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights in 1996, for example, lawmakers spent days mulling a U.N. recommendation to issue them side arms for personal defense. Then they debated the appropriate number of bullets. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake killed 6,000 people, local leaders waited four nights before they invited the SDF to join the rescue. When a similar quake shook San Francisco in 1989, by comparison, California's National Guard was on the move in just 15 minutes.

Japan's military leaders are a faceless bunch in their mid-50s, all products of the same academy and all promoted on about the same schedule. Very quietly, the top brass are rooting for the most articulate voice for expanded defense parameters: Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, the ruling LDP's newest coalition partner. Ozawa argues that Japan should expand its role in the U.S.-Japan alliance, actively defend itself in "areas surrounding Japan"--including Korea, Taiwan and China--and seek a role in U.N. forces like the one that liberated Kuwait. "Japan," he says, "should not remain ambiguous about what it can do."

Ozawa's nemesis is the charismatic Democratic Party leader Naoto Kan, touted as Japan's most popular politician. Recently, the two men faced off in several televised debates. Kan, who opposes expanding the SDF's role too broadly, forecasts "almost zero possibility of a large-scale invasion" and "a very small chance of a guerrilla attack." He approves peacekeeping but staunchly opposes Japanese participation in U.N. military missions. At one point, he told viewers: "It's necessary to raise the fences, get a bulldog and beef up security. But whether we should get a stick and go out to organize the neighborhood vigilante group should be debated in the Diet." In Kan's view, Tokyo should fund U.N. military missions but let others fight them--an approach Ozawa ridicules. "People don't trust the mafia boss who pays someone else to do his killing," he says. "He gets no respect."

For the first time, Japan also is attempting to define how the SDF should support U.S. forces in the region. One possible flash point is Korea, where a massive North Korean invasion of the South akin to Pyongyang's 1950 surprise attack would surely draw in the SDF. Washington could ask its ally to evacuate foreign noncombatants from South Korea, for example, a task the draft guidelines permit only so long as there's a safe route. On the high seas, Japanese minesweepers would be deployed to keep shipping lanes open, but could do so only if mines were declared "abandoned"--a loophole allowing SDF sailors to clear weapons from a war zone.

Back home, the SDF would be called upon to share bases with American forces, transport food, fuel and equipment to the U.S. Seventh Fleet and treat wounded GIs in civilian hospitals. From Washington's perspective, a critical unresolved issue is whether U.S. warplanes will be permitted to leave Japan armed for battle. At Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, the largest American outpost in East Asia, Washington has stockpiled enough fuel and munitions for a second Korean conflict. But commanders worry that their Japanese hosts might ask them to deploy their warplanes unarmed. They have reason for concern. "There are measures that can be taken so this does not become a strategic problem," LDP lawmaker Tokuichiro Tamazawa, a leading member of the Diet's guidelines committee, told NEWSWEEK. "The Americans can fly to Korea to load bombs or do it on an aircraft carrier."

What if a squad of North Korean guerrillas actually did raid Japan, as in the popular novel? The new defense guidelines require the SDF to ward off "attacks in rear areas by guerrilla forces," including those targeting U.S. bases. But Japan's only anti-guerrilla squad is the National Police Agency's Special Assault Team, which has only 200 members scattered over seven cities and prefectures. According to recent Yomiuri Shimbun reports, the SDF stopped offering soldiers basic antiterrorism training in 1994 and currently equips troops guarding Japan's coast with binoculars and radios--but no guns. "Even in an emergency," complained one Yomiuri report, "the SDF is not authorized to guard the coastline at its own discretion unless it is ordered to do so by the prime minister."

North Korea's new longer-range missiles expose another vulnerability. After a three-stage Taepodong missile sailed over Japan on its maiden test flight last August, Tokyo hastily ordered up new spy satellites and began to bolster the Defense Agency's surveillance division--the group that interprets intelligence data provided by the United States. Tokyo also restated its support for developing a Theater Missile Defense system with the United States by 2010. LDP lawmakers have even suggested a radical answer to Pyongyang's missile diplomacy: pre-emptive strikes against North Korea when a launch against Japan looks imminent.

In the long run, Japan's biggest challenge will come from Asia's awakening giant: China. While leaders in Beijing remain vigilant against Japanese "rearmament," their rhetoric is part of an orchestrated strategy to overtake Japan as the region's pre-eminent power. According to Western defense analysts, China's People's Liberation Army is rapidly acquiring technologies necessary to project force toward Japan, across the Taiwan Strait and into the South China Sea. These include Russian Hilo-class submarines and advanced Su-27 warplanes, midair refueling, advanced cruise missiles and a new generation of nuclear weapons. "China was, is and will be our central problem in the region," says a senior Japanese Defense Agency official.

Consider the South China Sea. By 2010, some 60 percent of Japan's oil and other shipping tonnage will pass through those waters--all of it beyond the SDF's current reach but within range of Chinese forces. "Imagine piracy or supertanker sabotage that makes commercial shipping untenable," says a U.S. diplomat in Tokyo. "This brings us square up against why Japan is redefining its defense parameters."

Under the new guidelines, Japan will play a substantial supporting role for U.S. forces should a standoff with China occur in the Taiwan Strait. How? In 1996, when Beijing test-fired missiles near Taiwan, and Washington responded by sending two aircraft-carrier groups to the area, Tokyo supplied these visiting ships with fuel and sent reconnaissance aircraft to assist them--all under the rubric of military exercises. In a recent interview with NEWSWEEK, a senior Japanese national-security official declined to outline Tokyo's specific options in the event of a real crisis in the Taiwan Strait, but he made clear that the concern ranks high on his agenda. "This is our hottest problem," the official said, "and it's extremely sensitive."

Japan's weapons procurements suggest an attempt to counter China's advances. During its 1996-2000 purchasing period, for example, Japan's maritime SDF quietly commissioned the Osumi, the first of three high-tech transport ships. Ostensibly built to haul tanks and landing craft within Japan's territorial waters, these 178-meter-long, flat-topped warships also are equipped for a more demanding mission. "Considering the length of the ship's flight deck," concluded a study published in Jane's Defense Review last year, "it is entirely possible that it could eventually be used as a platform for aircraft." The Osumi already accommodates helicopters, and according to one senior Japanese official, could be refitted to carry vertical-takeoff jets. "If Japan and the U.S. agree to strengthen sea-lane defense and a small carrier is needed," the official told NEWSWEEK, "we will have it."

Tokyo's 2001-2005 shopping list is even more telling. It includes tankers for the Air Force, the missing link in a midair refueling system to keep Japan's F-15 fighter jets aloft indefinitely, and larger transport aircraft capable of carrying troops faster and farther. The stated mission is peacekeeping, but one American military expert sees the makings of an air expeditionary force capable of rescuing Japanese civilians trapped almost anywhere in the world. In the 2006-2010 cycle, Tokyo plans to deploy a Theater Missile Defense, and "if China pressures the sea lanes or Korea reunifies," says the senior Japanese official, the military will also purchase vertical-takeoff warplanes for its three Osumi transports--giving Japan its first fixed-wing aircraft carrier since World War II.

Still, the cornerstone for Tokyo's security will remain its alliance with the United States--and the 47,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen now stationed in Japan. Yet American troops remain vulnerable to "Yankee Go Home" sentiment. "In a friendly way, our neighbors tell us 'We like you, but we only want Japanese troops in Japan'," says a U.S. Army officer now serving at the Sagami Depot near Tokyo. One former prime minister recently questioned the logic of the protracted U.S. deployment in Japan. "Washington justifies the privileges it has enjoyed since World War II by warning the Japanese about what it wrongly claims is an increase in Chinese military power and the threat posed by ... North Korea," argued Morihiro Hosokawa last year in an anti-bases manifesto in Foreign Affairs. "Simultaneously, it appeals to ... other Asian nations by claiming that American troops forestall any Japanese inclination to remilitarize. These arguments no longer acknowledge Asia's realities."

In Okinawa, where three marines raped a 12-year-old Japanese girl in 1995, an organized anti-base movement is growing. Since the incident, U.S. forces have handed back surplus land, erected noise-abatement barricades, sent volunteers to local nursing homes and otherwise sought to rebuild local trust. What's lacking is a clear message from Tokyo. This month, for instance, the Japanese government abruptly canceled scheduled U.S. paratrooper exercises in Okinawa so as not to create disharmony ahead of the Diet's guidelines vote. "I'd love for the Japanese government to stand up and talk about why the Marines are here in Okinawa, but they won't," says a USMC officer with typical frustration. "So we do it, dressed in camouflage and speaking a foreign language."

Japan's troops know about lack of leadership. These defenders of the world's second largest economic power spend their days gleaning pointers on modern combat from "Declaration of War." In the novel, the North Koreans launch an all-out invasion of Japan but abort the mission after the United States threatens a massive counterstrike on Pyongyang. Once again, U.S. power saves the day for Japan. Japanese soldiers wait for weeks to get Aso's novel from base libraries, scribble comments in the margins and even write letters to their commanders suggesting ways to fix the SDF's problems. "Virtually every officer in my brigade has read it," says a sergeant in Japan's elite ranger unit, the First Airborne.

So, apparently, have SDF troops stationed in Okinawa. Late last year, according to U.S. military personnel on the island, an American submarine mistakenly surfaced in view of the coastline--triggering fears of a North Korean invasion. Within minutes of the first sub sighting, "the Japanese launched reconnaissance aircraft and put Okinawa on general alert," says a U.S. naval officer. "Everyone took it very seriously." They'd better. The next submarine might not be so friendly--and the SDF might actually have to do something about it.

The Military Shopping List

As Japan ponders a more assertive diplomacy and a more active role in Pacific conflicts, it is also buying and building more advanced planes, ships and hardware to match its changing missions. Some samples from the military-acquisition program:

Airborne tankers: Japan plans to buy the Boeing 767 in 2001-2005 for midair refueling, extending the range of its F-14 fighters.

Aircraft carriers: Ostensibly built to haul tanks and landing craft between Japan's islands, the high-tech Osumi transport ships can also function as helicopter and jump-jet carriers. One Osumi is already in service; two more are being fitted.

Jump jets: In the 2006-2010 purchasing cycle, Japan will consider buying vertical-takeoff-and-landing jets, which can fly from Osumi ships.

Air transport: Japan plans to buy bigger, longer-range cargo planes between 2001 and 2005 to help deliver Japanese peacekeepers and humanitarian relief abroad.

Spy satellites: Plans now call for the launch of four satellites into orbit over North Korea by 2002.

Missile defense: With Patriot anti-missile missiles in its arsenal, Japan now hopes to deploy a full Theater Missile Defense system in concert with the United States by 2010.