TOKYO -- Ever since Commodore Perry's black ships entered the harbor here in 1853, the Japanese have wondered whether their nation could modernize without becoming thoroughly Westernized. Today, they wonder whether their nation can provide for their defense and play a proper role in the international security system without jettisoning a national identity imposed in 1947 by the nation that had sent the black ships.
In America, many domestic issues become constitutional controversies but presidents have negligible constitutional restraints on their conduct of foreign policy. In Japan, foreign policy often begins -- and almost ends -- by construing Article 9 of the constitution imposed by the American occupation 60 years ago. That article stipulates that Japan ``forever'' renounces war and ``the threat or use of force'' in settling international disputes. Therefore ``land, sea, and air forces'' will ``never'' be maintained.
But they are maintained. And although constitutional pacifism has long been embraced by the Japanese, before this decade ends the Self-Defense Forces may be taken off Article 9's leash.
The seeds of this change were sown in the previous decade. Domestically, the 1990s were the ``lost decade'' of economic deflation (a zero interest rate for 2.5 years). In foreign affairs, the 1990s were a decade of two traumas.
The first was the 1991 Gulf War. Japan hoped that the end of the Cold War would radically diminish the importance of military power as an ingredient of a nation's international weight. But as America formed a vast coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait, Japan was constitutionally restricted to ``checkbook diplomacy'' -- helping to pay for the war.
Then in 1998, North Korea launched a Taepodong ICBM over Japan's main island, Honshu. The lunatic regime of an economically anemic and culturally primitive nation felt free to disdain the interests and lacerate the sentiments of a vibrant democracy with a muscular economy.
Since then, revision of Article 9 has become probable: A majority of the governing Liberal Democratic Party favors revision and Shinzo Abe almost certainly will become prime minister when Junichiro Koizumi retires in September. Abe, 51, who represents a generation interested in a more assertive international posture for Japan, has said, for example, that if ``there is no other option to prevent'' a North Korean attack, a Japanese attack on North Korea's missile launch sites is ``within the constitutional right of self-defense.'' But he clearly believes that even with imaginative construing, the elasticity of Article 9 is insufficient to permit Japan to play a proper role regionally and elsewhere.
The unsatisfactory alternatives to revision are for Japan either to abandon its determination to become a ``normal'' nation, or to continue concocting sophistical interpretations of Article 9. Koizumi pushed the limits of Article 9 by sending five ships to the Indian Ocean to assist forces in Afghanistan -- two supply ships and three destroyers to guard them. Then in 2004, in the first deployment of Japanese troops to a war zone since 1945, he sent 600 soldiers to Iraq -- but not for combat.
Last month North Korea, which has many medium-range missiles that can strike Japan, launched seven missiles into the Sea of Japan. The 800 Chinese missiles targeting Taiwan could also strike Japan, which in 2005 joined the United States in saying that a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan dispute is a crucial security interest. In June of this year, Japan agreed to jointly produce anti-missile defenses with the United States. Some will be deployed on five Aegis destroyers belonging to Japan's highly sophisticated navy and assisted by Japan's spy satellites.
All this while Article 9 says that sea and other forces shall never be ``maintained.'' The Self-Defense Forces are maintained by a $45 billion defense budget, the world's fourth largest.
In the first three months of this year Japan scrambled fighter jets 107 times in response to what were assumed to be Chinese spy planes provocatively close to Japan's air space. A Chinese submarine has made an incursion into Japan's territorial waters, and the two nations are disputing whose waters cover disputed oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea. Surely it is time for Japan to end the dissonance between its necessary behavior and its constitution's text, a contradiction that can complicate policymaking and produce national paralysis.
This matters to Americans because East Asia -- its share of global GDP, now more than 20 percent, is projected to be 27 percent by 2020 -- matters. And because rising China and demented North Korea complicate regional security. And because the list of economically formidable nations that are without virulent anti-Americanism and are eager to collaborate with America is short. The list is: Japan.