EVEN AS A newly reunified Germany assures its anxious neighbors that it will never again throw its military weight around, a crisis breaks out in the Persian Gulf and calls are heard, in the name of burden-sharing, for a German Gulf role. Essentially the same pattern is duplicated in Japan, the other principal Axis power defeated in World War II. Like Germany, the wartime victors wrote for Japan a postwar constitution and imposed a postwar policy limiting its military strength and reach. But also like Germany, Japan has become an economic dynamo and is being called upon to support the United States in the Gulf in a way reflecting the great benefits it has received from the international system since the war.

In Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has been struggling to fit his country's immense new regional burdens -- reunification plus leading the revival of the whole Eastern Bloc -- to the latest appeals to Gulf aid. He has refused to send troops on grounds that the German constitution prohibits stationing troops outside the NATO area. Some scholars say no constitutional change is required for Germany to join a NATO or United Nations enterprise, but still Mr. Kohl is wise to proceed carefully. Germany and its friends can use the time to sort out the new shape of things. Meanwhile there are other ways Germany can demonstrate solidarity in the Gulf. Picking up a larger share of the costs makes sense. Tightening its lax export controls is essential to prevent any other marauding state from reaping benefits, as Iraq did, from Germany's industrial prowess.

Japan was already caught up in a difficult effort to determine a world role suitable to its economic power. Its dependence on Gulf oil sharpens the issue. Even more than Germany does Japan smart under the label of "free rider." Yet a military response is bound to ignite deep apprehension among the many people in Japan and across Asia who fear any impetus -- even the most worthy -- to anything beyond a strictly defined self-defense role. Prime Minister Toshika Kaifu has proposed sending support troops in a so-called United Nations Peace Cooperation Corps to provide noncombat aid. The proposal has stirred controversy, and no early disposition of it is expected. Meanwhile, Japan is in a position to send more aid in useful conventional categories.

The Cold War obviated an expanded foreign role for the defeated Axis powers. The end of the Cold War brings this question jarringly to the fore. Germany and Japan are now restored as international powers, but they come to that status trailing an unforgettable history. If it complicates their and others' consideration of their future, then it also assures that essential questions will be asked.