One benefit of North Korea’s reckless behavior is that it's causing the Japanese to finally wake up to the real world. Their GDP, population, wealth, and potential defense spending make them, in my estimation, the second most powerful nation in the world. However, power and influence not used are power and influence that do not exist. Fully rousing the Japanese so they begin to exercise their power is one of the most critical things for ensuring the peace and stability of the future.
The Japanese were shocked when the North Koreans launched a missile over them in 1998. They were even more shocked to learn that they had no ability to defend against it. Since that time the Japanese have been a major partner in our National Missile Defense program. After President Bush came along in 2001, they accelerated their efforts to become a normal country. Most notably, they made their largest and furthest post-World War II deployment when they sent soldiers to Iraq. Whatever the public opinion polls said Japanese thought of that deployment, they re-elected Prime Minister Koizumi in an enormous landslide in September 2005.
Since Koizumi’s resounding re-election the Japanese have begun to throw off the last limitations of the post-World War II settlement. They re-organizing their defense forces and strengthening the relevant portions within their current budget limit. The ground self-defense force is being converted from a static Cold War defense force to a capable, smaller, deployable force for the 21st Century. The air self-defense force is continuing its purchases of F-15’s and the Japanese developed F-2’s (a sort of super F-16). The maritime self-defense force is expanding from 10 very modern destroyers/frigates every bit as excellent as America’s to 20. Despite concern throughout Asia, the Japanese are also planning to build 2 light carriers in the next few years (preliminary to full size carriers one hopes). To top it all off, they are seriously considering promoting their military to a full cabinet ministry and getting rid of the silly “defense force” names.
On the diplomatic front, the Japanese have been attempting to see a reformed U.N. where they would at least have a permanent non-veto seat on the Security Council. I consider one of the great problems of the U.N. that Japan, with the world’s second biggest economy, and India, with the second largest population, have to wait their turn for a Security Council seat like Belgium, Bhutan, and Burundi. Whatever the end result, the fact is that the Japanese are making the effort to do it. The Japanese have also been in the lead demanding strong U.N. action on North Korea. They have not stood down in the face of strong Chinese pressure over the Senkaku Islands and the East China Sea natural gas deposits, nor Korean pressure over Takeshima Island. They have further stood firm over demands for yet more apologies for World War II.
The latest example of the growing self-confidence in Japan is the statement that Japan is considering whether a pre-emptive strike against North Korea is allowed. Like America, the Japanese are realizing that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. However, as they consider whether they are legally allowed to attack North Korea they will soon learn that they do not have the means to attack North Korea even if they wanted to. This will be an interesting next step in Japan’s progression to normal country status; will they re-arm with offensive weapons? I hope they do and also hope they increase their military spending from under 1% of GDP (~$45 billion)to 2.5-3.5% ($125-175 billion). To do those things reliably they need to change Article 9 of their constitution which is just what they are doing. With Article 9 gone, the Japanese will be back on the international stage.
Far from turning away from such rhetoric and ideas, the Japanese people are warming to the main proponent of the new Japan, Shinzo Abe. (As a side note, Abe has been my favorite choice to succeed Koizumi since Koizumi announced he will step down, this only causes me to like him more.) I also noticed, while reading about the World War II super battleship IJN Yamato, that a movie about the exploits of the vessel was made in 2005 in Japan and that a museum about it opened the same year (from the pictures it looks relatively busy). As bad as the Japanese behaved in World War II, they can still take pride in their war-time achievements like the IJN Yamato. It’s interesting to see that, along with Yasukuni visits, the Japanese are at last getting over the war-guilt that has inhibited their nation since World War II. They also seem, unlike the Europeans, to understand that just because they behaved badly at times in the past doesn’t give anyone the right to push them around today. This is key because the exercise of power requires a firm moral and cultural basis. Again, no matter how much power you have, if you don't use it it's meaningless.
The Japanese appear to be culturally, diplomatically, and militarily preparing to re-enter the international geopolitical fray. As we lose our old allies in Europe because of the collapse of their morale and power, we could certainly use a reinvigorated Japan as our friend. I’ve already written about Japan’s value to us here. The North Koreans are simply silencing Japanese doubters of their country's new direction and causing them to redouble their efforts. The better Japan is able to help with real world problems, the better it is for both us and the world.