Courtesy Reuters

Japan's New Nationalism

ARMED AND DANGEROUS?

On December 18, 2001, the Japanese navy detected an unidentified ship sliding through the country's territorial waters off the Amami Islands, in the East China Sea. The vessel, a 100-ton squid fishing ship, bore Chinese markings. Something about its design seemed unusual, however, and no fishing equipment was visible. Japanese officials grew suspicious and decided to investigate.

The mystery ship did not respond to hails and fired on Japanese ships when they approached. In response, the Japanese decided to give chase. After an extended pursuit deep into Chinese waters, Japanese patrol boats opened fire on the intruder with heavy machine guns. The fleeing craft -- which turned out to be a North Korean spy ship, bearing no fishing equipment of any kind -- caught fire and sank, killing its Korean crew.

Apart from a few newspaper reports, the episode got little attention in the West. But the significance of Japan's uncharacteristically assertive response -- a marked contrast to past incursions, and the first time Japan's navy had sunk a foreign vessel since the end of World War II -- was not lost on local observers. Such behavior, they noted, would have been almost unimaginable only a decade ago. The fact that Tokyo was suddenly willing to use force suggested a major shift in the attitudes of the Japanese about their country and its defense.

This shift became much clearer a year later, when, in October 2002, North Korea admitted that it was actively developing nuclear weapons (and, a month later, insisted that it already possessed a few working bombs). In mid-February 2003, Japan's defense minister, Shigeru Ishiba, warned North Korea that Japan could launch a preemptive strike to defend itself if necessary. He repeated the warning on September 15 while in London, noting that "the Japanese constitution permits my position. Attacking North Korea after a missile attack on Japan is too late." Other prominent members of Japan's government and media have followed suit, arguing that their country should prepare to defend itself --

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