Japan has reason to celebrate these days. Several weeks ago a baby named Hisahito was born -- the first male heir to the “Chrysanthemum throne” in four decades. And recently, Shinzo Abe took over as prime minister, after promising to make the country stronger and more influential on the world stage.
Well, bully for Japan, you might reply, but why does this matter to me, living and working in the United States?
To answer that, consider this: Much of what we buy these days is made in Asia, and there’s little doubt of the vital role the region will play in the future.
In this key region, we need more than a valuable trade partner. We need a partner in defense and diplomacy. That’s why it’s critical that we fashion with Japan the sort of “special relationship” we’ve long enjoyed with Britain.
This is where the new prime minister comes in. Shinzo Abe is an avowed Japanese nationalist, proud of his nation’s heritage -- and its future. As he told a reporter last year, “You refer to me as rather nationalistic, but I say that the person who is not patriotic cannot be the leader of his country.”
In the United States, of course, such attitudes are routine; no politician would run for office without at least professing a belief in American greatness. However, Japan still lives with the shame of World War II.
Its constitution (written by Gen. Douglas MacArthur) forbids an offensive military. Instead, Japan has practiced “checkbook diplomacy,” shelling out cash to support military missions undertaken by the U.S. That’s what Tokyo did in 1991, when it spent $13 billion to support the Gulf War but didn’t send a single soldier.
Under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan began taking a more active role in the world. Koizumi sent Japanese Self-Defense forces to participate in the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. Abe promises to continue moving in this direction.
The new leader says he wants to change the constitution to allow Japan to build a stronger fighting force. And he’s announced he wants to strengthen military cooperation with the U.S. That would end up benefiting both countries. For example, Abe wants to extend the law that allows Japanese ships to refuel naval vessels taking part in the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan. This cooperation allows the U.S. to accomplish more without sending extra ships, and it helps Japan build a better defense capability.
Japan may well need that capability.