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 -- including, possibly, by developing nuclear weapons.

Not long ago, such comments would have been unthinkable outside the extreme right wing of Japan's political discourse. Today, however, this kind of language is becoming more and more common. In fact, while the United States has spent the last few years focusing almost exclusively on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the war on terror, another formidable challenge -- rising nationalism -- has taken hold in one of America's closest allies. This development could have an alarming consequence: namely, the rise of a militarized, assertive, and nuclear-armed Japan, which would be a nightmare for the country's neighbors. Washington, therefore, must take heed of the developments in Tokyo, and fast. With North Korea growing ever more bellicose, Japan's nuclear genie may have escaped its bottle for good. Japan's new nationalism is not an unalloyed evil, however; on the contrary, it may well be the key to rallying the Japanese public behind much-needed economic reforms. Although the rebirth of Japanese nationalism is by no means a sure thing, and the implications are contradictory, one thing, at least, is clear: the worst American response would be to ignore it.


In the years since World War II, Japanese nationalism has been widely denounced and debated within Japan and throughout Asia; in order to grasp its role in Japan today, it is necessary to understand just what the term "Japanese nationalism" entails. Historians track its emergence to the Tokugawa era, which began in 1603, but it was only during the Meiji period (1868-1912) that Japanese nationalism took on its modern form as a philosophy with fascist underpinnings, and as a movement that would cause instability throughout the region and the world.

After 1945, nationalism was relegated to the fringes of Japan's popular debate -- at least until recently. This marginalization was a result, in large part, of Japan's "fear of itself." Memories of the humbling surrender by the Japanese high command aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri and the devastating results of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki fueled this syndrome. The fear stems from two basic concerns: first, that if Japan's military is given too much power it could again cause the country great pain and, second, that the Japanese public itself could again embrace militarism. Until recently, these misgivings have kept most Japanese citizens from supporting amendments to Article 9 of the country's American-drafted constitution, which essentially commits the country to pacifism, ensures its staunch antinuclear stance, and has made it difficult for it to provide actual military support to its allies (including, most infamously, during the first Gulf War). Under pressure from Washington, Japan recently passed a series of measures that will allow its troops to go to Iraq, but their likely role there will be limited to rebuilding the country's infrastructure. Japan's fear of itself -- not a selfish desire to avoid the cost of maintaining a modern standing army, as some critics claim -- has also caused Japanese politicians to oppose the country's rearmament over most of the last half-century.

Today, this fear is eroding, as the sinking of the North Korean spy ship suggests. Open calls for Japan to acquire nuclear weapons -- a subject that was once forbidden -- provide further evidence of a new nationalism. Various members of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's cabinet have joined the defense minister in urging the country to protect itself more vigorously. In mid-2002, for example, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda argued publicly that the constitution did not prevent Japan from acquiring nuclear weapons, and his comments were quickly echoed by Tokyo's governor, Shintaro Ishihara -- perhaps Japan's most well-known nationalist. Ichiro Ozawa, the head of Japan's opposition Liberal Party, has also chimed in, asserting that Japan could counter any Chinese threat by producing "three to four thousand nuclear warheads. ... If we get serious, we will never be beaten in terms of military power."

Japan clearly is moving in a different direction. The country's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are increasing dramatically their expenditures on missile defense, requesting $1.2 billion for it in 2004, nine times more than the total spent from 1999 to 2003. Already, Article 9's prohibitions have started to erode. This process began symbolically in 1987 when, for the first time since World War II, Japan's self-defense budget exceeded one percent of GDP, long considered the country's unofficial limit for defense spending. Since then, Japan's legislature has passed a number of decrees specifically designed to circumvent Article 9. Soon after his election, Koizumi convened the Japanese legislature's Research Commission on the Constitution to reconsider the rules on the use of force, and public opinion has also started to shift. A plurality of Japanese now favor turning the country's SDF into a full-fledged army. In 2000, just 41 percent of Japanese wanted to amend Article 9 along these lines; a year later, the figure had risen to 47 percent, and it would surely be higher today, given events in North Korea and terrorism in Indonesia and the Philippines.

As a result of such shifts, various nationalist positions once considered radical are no longer thought outlandish. In the last weeks of 2002, Shingo Nishimura, a right-wing member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), declared, "Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, is Hitler and the Japanese government is behaving like Chamberlain." As The Times of London reported on February 22, 2003, "a few months [earlier], Nishimura was regarded as an isolated crank," and "the merest allusion to the possibility of a nuclear Japan was taboo. But among politicians, academics, and bureaucrats, the possibility is now being discreetly and cautiously discussed." Another stark sign of this trend is the growing popularity of Tokyo's outspoken governor, Ishihara, who has become so powerful that the LDP decided to endorse him in an April 2003 election -- despite the fact that he is an independent. Ishihara won approximately 70 percent of the vote in that race, the highest margin ever for a Tokyo governor. On September 14, Koizumi called for a national debate on the issue of amending Article 9.

Such changes in Japanese attitudes have not gone entirely unnoticed outside the country. In the summer of 2002, Greenpeace called for the European Union to cancel all bilateral trade agreements with Japan in response to Tokyo's movement toward nuclear armament. Among other worrying signs, Greenpeace highlighted the fact that Japan has started increasing its stockpiles of plutonium. The country already has 38,000 kilograms of the radioactive material; by 2020, it will have 145,000 kilograms. Given that only 5 kilograms are required for one nuclear weapon, Japan would then be able to assemble almost 30,000 nuclear warheads. Greenpeace's report also noted that Japan's impressive space program would make it "capable of deploying the most advanced nuclear weapons systems in the world."


Despite these developments, much of the world has yet to notice the rise in Japanese nationalism. When they do take note, moreover, foreign observers tend to focus exclusively on a few issues, such as the debate over Article 9, or the way in which Japanese textbooks discuss World War II, or whether Japanese officials visit the Yasukuni Shrine war memorial. Such a narrow focus leads foreigners to overlook the real sources and manifestations of contemporary Japanese nationalism. And by objecting to a few symbolic actions while ignoring other, more substantial factors, outside parties only make things worse.

Take the Yasukuni Shrine, for instance. For the past two decades, visits by Japanese leaders to the memorial have been one of the most common sources of friction between Japan and its neighbors -- particularly those, such as China, Singapore, and South Korea, that bore the brunt of Japanese aggression and colonialism. These countries complain that since many Japanese war criminals are buried at the site, Japanese leaders should refrain from making official visits. Yasukuni, however, is Japan's equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery -- as well as war criminals, the country's most honored military heroes lie there, and it is unrealistic to expect the government to ignore them. Moreover, the Japanese public has grown weary of the apologies its government is continually pressured into making over its behavior before and during the war. Many Japanese now feel their country has apologized enough for its actions 60 years ago and think Tokyo should start asserting itself.

These same Japanese resent the furor caused by new editions of Japanese textbooks; in fact, foreign protests only heighten nationalist sentiment in Japan. Neighboring countries complain that new Japanese textbooks do not accurately portray the country's role in World War II or the atrocities committed by its soldiers. But a reading of these textbooks reveals that they do not glorify Japan's role; they simply do not go into as much detail as its neighbors would like.

Meanwhile, regarding Article 9, many in Japan are starting to feel that it is unnatural for a country with Japan's international stature not to have a standing army. Although Japan does have its SDF and the fourth-largest military budget in the world, its armed services are unimpressive and weak, even compared to those of some of its neighbors. After all, combat readiness requires experience with warfare and high-risk training. Japan has had neither for 60 years, and as a result, its troops can barely deal with natural disasters such as earthquakes, let alone foreign armies. Given the threats Japan now faces in the region, its citizens have reason to worry about Tokyo's ability to protect them, and they bridle at the way foreign countries object to any defense reforms.

In addition to provoking Japanese resentment, the international focus on textbooks, the Yasukuni Shrine, and Article 9 has obscured other, more important factors contributing to the spread of nationalism in Japan. These factors fall into two categories, domestic and international. On the domestic front, both demographic and economic trends have contributed to a more aggressive-minded population. To begin with, as the country's citizens have aged and more members of the World War II generation have passed away, fewer Japanese actually remember the horrors of war, and hence fewer fear the return of militarism. Most Japanese alive today never saw firsthand how popular nationalism can evolve into fascism and thus do not understand its perils.

Moreover, Japan's younger citizens were reared during a time when their country's economic success bred a strong sense of pride and honor. These Japanese grew up expecting their homeland to take the lead in Asia (at least economically). Over the last 12 years, they have watched with dismay as their economy has languished in an extended recession and the country's influence has waned. Tokyo's impact on its neighbors has dwindled with the contraction of its resources.

Indeed, Japan's ongoing economic crisis has had a profound psychological effect on many of its citizens. The generation that rebuilt the country after World War II believed that their children and grandchildren would live in one of the world's richest countries. Now they must confront the strong possibility that their children will have a worse standard of living than they did. The Nikkei, Japan's leading securities index, recently hit a 20-year low, dipping below the 8,000 threshold. Unemployment, at 5.5 percent earlier this year, is still above 5.0 percent and near a post-World War II high, and confidence in Tokyo's ability to turn the situation around dwindles with each passing week. Although there are signs that Japan's economy is now slowly recovering, the LDP's vested interest in the status quo has prevented the government from addressing many structural problems.

If Japan's decline were not enough to make its citizens insecure, the rise of China has made things even worse. Over the last few years, China has slowly but surely assumed leadership of the region. China's GDP growth rate, 8 percent in 2002, is the world's highest. Southeast Asian countries, the economies of which Japan helped build, are banking on China as their most important future economic partner. Even Japan itself recognizes the importance of investment in China; elite Japanese companies, such as nec and Honda, are investing heavily on the mainland, as are many American corporations.

Resentment of this shift, coupled with strategic tensions with China, has strengthened the hand of Japanese nationalists who think their country should once more possess the military power to rival that of its neighbors. Humiliating issues such as the Senkaku Islands dispute have heightened such sentiments. These islands, widely recognized as belonging to Japan, have also been claimed by China. In 1997, the Chinese repeatedly conducted maritime activities in the area, and some Japanese suspect China of placing mines and engaging in reconnaissance there.

Japan, long the largest aid donor in Asia, continues to pump money into China. Yet this largesse is becoming increasingly awkward. While Japan was teetering on the brink of depression it continued to provide its giant neighbor with direct aid, loans, and technical assistance; China, meanwhile, has increased its defense spending by double digits for 14 straight years -- causing even the most passive of Japanese citizens to question Tokyo's spending policies. As Ishihara has complained, "We pour money into China so they can continue work on developing a hydrogen bomb."

China's recent growth in wealth and power has been matched by another change that worries many Japanese: a shift in American attitudes toward Asia. The United States has served as Japan's main defender ever since the end of World War II. But many in Japan now sense that Tokyo's interests and are diverging from Washington's and doubt whether American military and diplomatic actions around the globe contribute to Japan's safety. According to a poll conducted over the summer by Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading newspaper, 60 percent of Japanese citizens thought the Iraq war was not justified. Some have also started to question America's impregnability; the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, highlighted the United States' vulnerability and were quickly followed up with increasing calls for Tokyo to revise Article 9.

And then, of course, there is North Korea -- the country that has contributed more than any other to Japan's growing concern over its national security. It is thanks to Pyongyang's new nuclear threat that Japanese citizens and policymakers are now openly discussing Japan's own nuclear armament, in a way that would have been unthinkable just 12 months ago. Earlier this year, it was revealed that in 1995, Tokyo conducted a secret study of the country's ability to produce nuclear weapons from its energy programs. Had the study been leaked at the time, the public outcry would have been intense, and there would have been calls for the resignation of the leaders involved. Yet this year, when the study was actually unveiled, the public remained silent. Meanwhile, two University of Kyoto professors, Terumasa Nakanishi and Kazuya Fukuda, recently wrote that "the best way for Japan to avoid being the target of North Korean nuclear missiles is for the prime minister to declare without delay that Japan will arm itself with nuclear weapons." And such sentiments appear regularly in Sankei Shimbun, Japan's nationalist daily (which has a circulation of over two million). Many Japanese fear the intentions of Kim Jong Il, a paranoid, unpredictable dictator, and they blame the United States for letting the crisis reach its current pitch.

Public frustration with Washington is fueled by a sense that it has squandered opportunities to improve matters. From the moment Kim said that he might resume his nuclear program, the United States should have anticipated Japan's concerns and acted quickly to allay them by engaging in direct dialogue with North Korea. Instead, the administration let the problem get worse. Washington also overlooked something not widely reported in the West: Pyongyang's attempts to reach out to its neighbors over the past three years. Recognizing the failure of its strategy of isolation, North Korea has tried to engage its neighbors economically. These actions were motivated by desperation, not a sense of real commitment to market principles. But Japanese diplomats were nonetheless frustrated when, instead of responding to the overtures, the United States chose to isolate North Korea as part of the "axis of evil." This move led nationalists to argue that the United States was making things more dangerous for Japan.

Of course, without a strong army, Japan has little choice but to keep following the United States. Increased tensions with North Korea have therefore all but guaranteed that Koizumi will continue to attempt to water down Article 9. American blundering has also done a great deal to strengthen the pro-nuclear camp within Japan. In early 2003, American officials hinted to their Chinese counterparts that if Beijing did not pressure Pyongyang to disarm, Tokyo might develop nuclear weapons. This gambit played directly into the hands of Japan's nationalists and will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to put the nuclear genie back in its bottle.

The drive to rearm has another psychological aspect that must be considered. For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, Japan was one of the biggest and most important spenders on the international scene. Yet despite its huge investment in Asia's tiger economies, its provision of the infrastructure essential for the Asian economic miracle, and its large financial contributions to the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank, Japan never seemed to get the acclaim or influence afforded other leading democracies. Expressions of Japanese pride were viewed with disdain outside the country. Japan does not have a permanent seat on the un Security Council, and there has never been a Japanese president of the World Bank or a Japanese managing director of the International Monetary Fund. The first Japanese to get a leading position in a prominent international organization was Sadako Ogata, who became un High Commissioner for Refugees only in 1991, after years of lobbying by Tokyo. This lack of recognition struck many Japanese as profoundly unjust -- and led some to wonder whether military rearmament might be one way to help their country get the respect it lacks and deserves.


Perhaps the least understood element of the nationalist agenda today is its economic aspect. Economic reform was crucial to the growth of Japanese nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s, when reform was seen as necessary for Japan to achieve its lofty foreign policy goals.

Today's nationalists and the Japanese public in general also understand that their country must straighten out its economy if it is to regain its international leadership position. Few, however, recommend nurturing sectors of the Japanese economy that have military applications, as was done in the 1930s. Instead, most nationalists focus on improving basic elements of the economy, in many of the same ways advocated by the international community, and support practical policies designed to push Japan forward. Some of these measures -- such as less government involvement in the private sector, reform of the seniority system, letting merit determine career advancement, and allowing more domestic competition -- even conflict with traditional Japanese practices.

Japan's new nationalists have in fact become a key constituency for the structural reform of their country's economy. Nationalism -- the desire to see Japan assume a preeminent global role -- may therefore turn out to be the one factor that manages to unite Japan's public behind the major structural changes the country must adopt to revive its economy. Many of the nationalists, especially those in the business community, support strong corporate governance and the adoption of Western-style accounting practices. They recognize that the old system does not work anymore and that its maintenance threatens Japan's future. From their perspective, structural reforms will make Japan stronger in the long run, and without such changes, Japan will fall further behind.

As a result, many nationalists oppose Japan's government-supported monopolies. They recognize that in areas such as telecommunications, the monopolies have lagged far behind in the development of new products, making the country a second-tier player in an industry where it was once dominant. Monopoly pricing also stifled the initial growth of the Internet in Japan. The nationalists know that economic success requires more foreign and domestic competition, not less. Nationalist reformers inside Japan's corporations also know how easy it is to create a false sense of profitability, and they recognize that such tactics have helped stall Japan's economy. They thus favor measures such as accounting reform, which would prevent the camouflaging of corporate weaknesses.

Another change from tradition that nationalists support (surprisingly) is reform of Japan's signature seniority system. With their backing, seniority has been displaced as the primary basis for promotion in Japan and has been replaced by an emphasis on performance. Support for this change is now almost universal within Japan's best companies, even from those who have benefited from the seniority system in the past. Many of these managers recognize that their beloved corporations will not survive if the old system continues. Many Japanese are also starting to understand that the government's historical support for "first-mover" companies -- companies that are the first to put a product on the market -- has downsides, particularly in high-tech areas such as telecommunications and electronics, since these first-movers are often not the best or most successful entities in driving the development of a given sector.

The nationalists have also helped to remove the stigma surrounding entrepreneurship in Japan, which is now seen by more and more Japanese as a badge of honor and bravery. Many of the new nationalists have even started to support immigration, recognizing it as a practical means of counterbalancing the aging of Japan's population and the underfunding of its pension system. According to a report produced by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, in 12 years, the elderly -- those 65 and older -- will make up 26 percent of Japan's population, and by 2050, the figure will reach 36 percent. The same report noted that whereas now there are four active workers to support each elderly person, by 2050, there will be only 1.5 workers to carry the load. The nationalists have acknowledged this trend, recognizing that Japan will not be able to meet its productivity needs without new workers. Thus Ishihara, for one, has boldly welcomed immigrants, arguing, "Regardless of how one feels about immigration, it is necessary for Japan's future and it is good for Japan's future; our social-economic situation requires it."


As the nationalists' surprising economic moderation suggests, this group may not pose quite the threat that many fear. Great stigma remains attached to the term "nationalist" within Japan, however, and few admit that the label applies to them. Nonetheless, the nationalists' primary goal -- to regain Japan's leadership position in the world -- has begun to resonate throughout the country.

Many of the new nationalists are professionals. Many were educated and trained overseas. Those in business believe in taking the best of Japan's traditions and combining them with lessons from the West. Most are not radical; they favor responding to provocations and threats to Japan but disagree sharply with the ultranationalists' most extreme views, such as their support for unprovoked military aggression. The mainstream nationalists simply want Japan to have the respect, political influence, and power commensurate with being the world's second most important economy and a major contributor to world affairs. They want to change the way Japan views itself and the way the rest of the world views it.

Ishihara is the best known of these new nationalists and perhaps Japan's most popular politician. At 23, he won the Japanese equivalent of the Booker Prize. While a member of parliament at age 56, he co-authored (with the late Akio Morita, co-founder of the Sony Corporation) one of the most controversial books in postwar Japanese history: The Japan That Can Say No. The book, which was published in 1989 and sold over a million copies, is a stream-of-consciousness nationalist manifesto, in which Ishihara and Morita (who subsequently disavowed the book) argue that the United States needs Japan as much as or more than Japan needs the United States. Being an independent -- having shunned the LDP -- Ishihara may never become prime minister. But he has already done a great deal to popularize Japanese nationalism, allowing many ordinary Japanese to embrace the cause of self-reliance without shame.

Ishihara's nationalist reputation is well deserved. Although he accepts the ongoing necessity of the U.S. security alliance and no longer favors kicking the Americans out of Japan, he has long supported the revision of Article 9, arguing that for Japan to be more independent it must have a strong military. He sharply chastised the Koizumi administration for its weak response after Chinese officials entered Japan's Beijing embassy last year to retrieve North Koreans who were attempting to defect. And he has persistently called for holding North Korea accountable for allegedly kidnapping at least ten Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, starting well before it became a popular issue in the country. When North Korea tested a Taepodong 1 ballistic missile in 1998 over sovereign Japanese territory, Ishihara's protests were the loudest.

Much of Ishihara's popularity may stem from his straightforwardness and iconoclasm, not his nationalism per se. Many Japanese view him as Reaganesque: attractively different from other politicians. Even some politicians who publicly bristle at his more outlandish statements privately value him as a catalyst for the kind of change that Japan needs if it is to reemerge as a world economic leader. These politicians also recognize that if Ishihara manages to break the monopoly the LDP has on power, other reform-minded politicians both inside and outside the LDP will benefit.


Like it or not, nationalism is likely to continue to intensify in Japan, and American policymakers must therefore take it into account. Article 9 of Japan's constitution will continue to be rolled back, and Japan is likely to use the excuse of the second Gulf War and the ongoing occupation of Iraq (and American pressure to contribute, albeit economically) to circumvent the limits on its armed forces -- as it did after the first Gulf War, Bosnia, and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. It will bide its time while creating a fighting force worthy of being called an army.

The process is already under way. As Shinichi Kitaoka, law professor at the University of Tokyo, said earlier this year, "Remilitarization is indeed going on, but no one is willing to take on the task of changing the legal framework." That, however, may well change if North Korea continues its threatening activities. It is therefore past time for Washington to decide what its response to such measures should be. The United States must resolve for itself whether it wants Japan to be a little brother or a full partner in Asian affairs.

It is hard to overstate the effect Japan's militarization could have on U.S. interests in Asia, and nowhere would the impact be greater than in China. Because of security links between the United States and Japan, rising tensions could pit Washington against Beijing if the United States is seen as encouraging Japanese militarization. Perhaps counterintuitively, however, Japan and China could also draw closer (perhaps joining a security pact) if Japan decides to reassert itself -- if, that is, both countries recognize the risks of an escalating arms race. In fact, China has taken steps to bury historical divisions between the two countries. For example, on September 3, Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan met with his Japanese counterpart Ishiba, the first time talks have been held at that level in years. And that same month, both countries announced that a Chinese warship will dock in Japan for the first time since 1949, while a Japanese defense force vessel will visit China. A new Chinese-Japanese relationship would decrease U.S. influence in the region over the long term and thus is a contingency for which the United States should prepare. North Korea's reaction will also be critical, especially if it uses the excuse of Japanese rearmament to accelerate its own weapons program (or resume it after a pause).

At least some in Washington -- namely, officials at the Pentagon -- seem to have addressed the Japan question already. Current U.S. military policy favors increasing Japan's military capability. Plans have been established for training Japanese forces at bases in the United States over the next few years. And many in the U.S. foreign policy community have argued for a reduction in American forces in Japan. But such decisions must not be made by the Defense Department alone, without consideration of the diplomatic consequences of a more nationalist Japan.

Washington should instead encourage the economic nationalists, especially those who favor reforms, without lending strength to the radicals. One way that the United States can help ward off extremism in Japan is by helping it avoid any further shoku (shocks), such as a major economic crisis or the collapse of Japan's social safety net. Such crises would strengthen the hand of the most extreme nationalists. A terrorist attack on Japanese soil would also cause a surge in militarism and could also enhance anti-Americanism if seen as a result of Tokyo's support for Washington, especially its actions in the Persian Gulf.

The United States should also start paying closer attention to the dynamics within Japan's domestic political system. This means monitoring the pulse of Japan's citizens, not just listening exclusively to the LDP. After all, many in Japan have almost given up on their ruling party, even though it maintains a stranglehold on the electoral machinery. The United States should not tie itself exclusively to a leadership considered unable to lead Japan back to predominance. In this vein, the Bush administration also should begin speaking at high levels with independent leaders such as Ishihara, Akita Governor Sukeshiro Terata, and Tochigi Governor Akio Fukuda.

Figuring out what Japan wants can sometimes be difficult for Americans. Given the patron-client nature of the security arrangement and U.S. leverage on international issues, Japanese officials do not always honestly express their real foreign policy desires. Washington should therefore get better at looking for subtle signs. At the moment, although Prime Minister Koizumi continues to support U.S. actions around the world, many in the Japanese public and government are starting to sense that the United States is preoccupied with matters that are not central to Japanese national security. The nationalists complain the loudest that had the United States focused more on North Korea, the situation there never would have gotten out of hand.

More attention would therefore help matters, as would specific measures to moderate Japanese nationalism. For example, American officials should discourage Japan's neighbors from criticizing Japanese leaders every time they visit the Yasukuni Shrine or change their history textbooks. Washington should also encourage these countries to drop their objections to the revision of Article 9. After all, although it will almost surely occur, securing an amendment will take a great deal of time, requiring a two-thirds vote from both houses of Japan's legislature and ratification by a majority of the population in a special referendum. And Japan has the right to establish its own standing army, which need not threaten its neighbors.

Having said that, Washington must persuade Tokyo not to acquire nuclear weapons. A nuclear Japan would make Asia a more dangerous place, starting an arms race unlike any the region has ever seen. China would increase its nuclear stockpile and seek more military resources, particularly nuclear submarines. Asia would suddenly have five nuclear powers -- China, India, Japan, Pakistan, and North Korea -- and South Korea would quickly follow, raising the potential for disastrous conflict.

To help prevent such a scenario, the United States should redouble its efforts to solve the North Korea problem. And it must do so fast, for North Korea could have a critical mass of nuclear weapons within six months. Any American solution should involve consultations with South Korea and Japan, followed by bilateral talks with North Korea and, immediately following, a multilateral meeting of the foreign ministers of China, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea to establish a framework for dialogue that could, after 24 months, lead to a new regional security arrangement. The recent, Chinese-hosted multilateral talks on North Korea were a positive step in this direction. Washington, however, must engage Pyongyang directly. Americans should remember that their interests and China's are not the same when it comes to North Korea -- if for no other reason than because in the worst-case scenario of a war, Beijing would surely stand with Pyongyang. China's goals are to defuse crises, prevent a conflict on its border, and improve its international standing, not necessarily to make North Korea an open society. The United States should also recognize that its own efforts could be the decisive factor in whether the Korean Peninsula achieves real peace or descends once again into turmoil.

Above all, Washington must remember how, in the 1920s, having suffered a devastating economic depression and humiliation by the international community after World War I, Japan became fiercely nationalistic -- and much of the region, if not the world, paid the price for it. Eighty years later, circumstances have become disturbingly similar to the interwar period. This time, however, the danger is even greater, thanks to the threat of international terrorism and of Japan's ruthless, unpredictable, and nuclear-armed neighbor. If Washington reads the right signs the right way, and encourages the most constructive forms of Japanese nationalism while helping ward off its excesses, the danger could still be averted. But success is not guaranteed, and the United States must act soon.

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  • Eugene A. Matthews, a former Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is President of Nintai, an international educational firm.
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