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Japan Now Seems Likely to Rally Behind New Prime Minister’s Call for a Stronger Military

by Mar­tin Fack­ler
THE NEW YORK TIMES

TOKYO, Oct. 9 — The last time North Korea test­ed a pow­er­ful new weapon, in 1998 when it fired a bal­lis­tic mis­sile over the largest Japan­ese island, Japan react­ed by upgrad­ing its mil­i­tary and swing­ing polit­i­cal­ly to the right.

North Korea’s claim that it test­ed a nuclear weapon on Mon­day appears like­ly to push Japan even fur­ther down the same nation­al­ist path. Many polit­i­cal ana­lysts say the test, which has yet to be con­firmed, could weak­en pub­lic sup­port for the paci­fism Japan adopt­ed after World War II and prompt it to seek a grow­ing region­al secu­ri­ty role.

But could the cri­sis be big enough to force Japan to break what might be its ulti­mate post­war taboo and go nuclear itself?

This is what some in East Asia have spec­u­lat­ed it would do if the iso­lat­ed and errat­ic Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment to its north sud­den­ly con­duct­ed an atom­ic bomb test. But for now, ana­lysts say, domes­tic oppo­si­tion runs too deep for Japan to reverse its renun­ci­a­tion of nuclear weapons.

“The nuclear test may prove to be an even big­ger shock to pub­lic opin­ion” than the 1998 mis­sile, said Yasunori Sone, a pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal and pol­i­cy analy­sis at Keio Uni­ver­si­ty in Tokyo. “It will get a minor­i­ty of peo­ple here call­ing for Japan to build nuclear weapons.”

The most like­ly result of North Korea’s actions, ana­lysts say, would be to ral­ly pub­lic opin­ion around Japan’s new prime min­is­ter, Shin­zo Abe, and his calls for tak­ing Japan in a more assertive direc­tion. The cri­sis may also increase Mr. Abe’s chances of revis­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion to allow Japan to pos­sess full-fledged armed forces.

There have been no calls yet here to build atom­ic weapons. Still, that is not a far-fetched notion. Japan is known to have stock­piles of weapons-grade atom­ic mate­r­i­al, used in its civil­ian nuclear pow­er and research pro­grams, and some stud­ies have said it would be able to con­struct a bomb in a mat­ter of months.

But Mr. Sone and oth­er ana­lysts say that despite North Korea’s claim of a weapons test, Japan­ese pro­po­nents of acquir­ing nuclear weapons will remain a minor­i­ty on the far-right fringe. Ana­lysts say going nuclear would face broad and emo­tion­al oppo­si­tion in Japan, which remains the only nation to have suf­fered atom­ic bomb attacks.

The prospect of a nuclear Japan might also send shud­ders through the rest of Asia, where mem­o­ries of Japan’s wartime aggres­sion are still raw. Some fear it could even set off a new Asian arms race.

Mr. Abe appeared to be try­ing to take a lead­ing role in respond­ing to the cri­sis, ana­lysts here said. He and oth­er Japan­ese lead­ers were quick to con­demn the report­ed test, say­ing Japan was work­ing with the Unit­ed States, its clos­est ally, and Asian neigh­bors like South Korea and Chi­na to find a response.

Speak­ing in Seoul, where he was meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Roh Moo-hyun, Mr. Abe crit­i­cized the test as a “seri­ous threat to the secu­ri­ty of Japan and South Korea, and of neigh­bor­ing coun­tries.”

“We have agreed that we must respond res­olute­ly,” Mr. Abe said in a news con­fer­ence after the meet­ing. “We have entered a new and more dan­ger­ous era.”

He also said Japan was con­sid­er­ing impos­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions against North Korea and increas­ing its par­tic­i­pa­tion in a mis­sile defense shield that it is devel­op­ing with the Unit­ed States. He said Japan had request­ed an imme­di­ate meet­ing of the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil.

In Tokyo, Yasuhisa Shioza­ki, the chief cab­i­net sec­re­tary and top gov­ern­ment spokesman, said Japan would try to work with the Unit­ed States to seek Unit­ed Nations action, pos­si­bly includ­ing glob­al eco­nom­ic sanc­tions. “We will lodge a stern protest and con­demn” the test, he said.

If North Korea has explod­ed a nuclear device, ana­lysts said the effects on Japan­ese pub­lic opin­ion might take time to appear. When North Korea test-fired a mul­ti­stage Tae­podong mis­sile over Japan in 1998, Japan’s ini­tial reac­tion was mut­ed, but pub­lic opin­ion end­ed up mov­ing sharply in favor of build­ing a stronger defense.

That allowed Japan to begin adding weapons that once would have been unthink­able, includ­ing Japan’s first spy satel­lite, a troop trans­port ship now under con­struc­tion that experts say could serve as a small air­craft car­ri­er, and aer­i­al tankers that would allow Japan­ese fight­er jets to refu­el in midair to reach North Korea and oth­er coun­tries.

For now, ana­lysts said most of Japan’s action was like­ly to come on the diplo­mat­ic front. They also said the cri­sis offered an unex­pect­ed chance for Japan to patch up its ties with South Korea and Chi­na.

“This cri­sis allows Mr. Abe to say that all three coun­tries face a shared ene­my,” Mr. Sone of Keio Uni­ver­si­ty said. “This is a chance for him to improve rela­tions with Asia.”