In 2002, as the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq, Washington policymakers reassuringly insisted that once combat was over, they would repeat America's post-World War II occupation success story -- the reformation of Japan. The flaws in that design, though, were twofold: Not only did Iraq turn out to be a very different sort of country, but these days, the success of the postwar remaking of Japan itself seems to be partly unraveling.

There's no doubt that the U.S. occupation was remarkably successful in establishing a vibrant democracy in Japan. But when it comes to the other important objective of occupation policy -- disarming the country to prevent future conflicts in East Asia -- the jury has lately filed back out of the courtroom. On the 60th anniversary of World War II's end, Japan's evolving attitudes toward a transformed post-Cold War, post-9/11 world have begun to raise questions about whether the country's embrace of pacifism was permanent -- and what this means for Asia and the world.

In the 1940s, Japan wholeheartedly embraced the pacifist constitution written by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's general headquarters, which renounced war and forbade maintenance of armed forces. But the pacifist fervor that characterized postwar Japan is now starting to fade, partly at Washington's behest, and partly as a result of a surprising and unrelenting rise of animosity between Japan and its neighbors in China and North and South Korea. The combination has begun to make Japan itself more assertive -- and more active militarily.

At MacArthur's behest, Tokyo put together a police militia after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, which turned into a de facto military, the "Self-Defense Forces," in 1954. For much of its existence, the force was a toothless tiger. Starting in the early 1990s, however, after being treated like an odd man out for not joining the Gulf War coalition, Tokyo began contributing troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations in places such as Cambodia, Mozambique, the Golan Heights and East Timor.

Since 9/11, Japan has shifted further away from pacifism. Starting in late 2001, it deployed a task force of destroyers and fleet oilers to the Indian Ocean to help the allied fleet support operations in Afghanistan. And a few months after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein's government, Tokyo sent about 1,000 troops to establish and support a small force in southern Iraq that so far has avoided combat.

The emergence of a Japanese will to get back into the military game, even in a carefully nonviolent way, has stirred fears in Beijing, Seoul and Pyongyang. Koreans only too well remember the oppression and humiliation they suffered under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, while the Chinese will never forget the hundreds of thousands killed in the 15-year conflict between China and Japan that began in the early 1930s and culminated in the second Sino-Japanese war.

Their fears have been compounded by the rise to prominence in Japan of people who deny that there was anything wrong with Japan's war of conquest in East Asia or with the behavior of the troops waging it. Against that background, some tense arguments between Japan and its mainland neighbors over control of islands and territorial waters have begun to seem more threatening. Nationalist propaganda on all sides has generated an air of hostility in Asia -- and played into the hands of Japanese conservatives who've long hungered to remake Japan into a "normal nation."

All of this has marginalized Japanese pacifism. The government last year embarked on a plan to revise the occupation-era constitution with support from a majority of the public. Earlier this month, a panel of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) proposed to drop the renunciation of war as a national principle, to do away with the ban on maintaining "land, sea and air forces" and to revive "the right of belligerency of the state."

There is more than a little historic irony in the fact that the United States, which wrote the no-war Constitution, is now the chief foreign prod for actions that can be read as violations of it. It would have been difficult for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to order the navy fleet to the Indian Ocean if not for then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's argument, made repeatedly to Japanese reporters, that it was crucially important that the Japanese flag fly beside the Stars and Stripes in the war on terror. A year later, Armitage told Japanese reporters that it was vital to Japan's national interest to "put boots on the ground" in Iraq. That phrase was instrumental in winning approval of the first postwar dispatch of Japanese troops to a war zone, from both legislators and a general public beginning to be concerned about U.S. willingness to defend Japan in the event of a North Korean missile attack.

Tokyo's "reinterpretation" of the constitution to permit things that the document plainly forbids has certainly improved Tokyo's relations with Washington, which were strained over economic and trade issues during the Clinton administration. Today, officials of both governments describe them as never better. But Japan's new militarism has made relations with Beijing and Seoul the worst in recent memory. That in turn is making East Asia look suddenly and unexpectedly volatile, after 30 or more post-Vietnam years of relative stability. As the region is now a linchpin of the global economy, a round of instability there could have serious consequences in the United States and Europe.

Much of the current war of words between the three capitals stems from Koizumi's determination to make an annual pilgrimage to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine. Despite vigorous protests from Beijing and Seoul after his first visit in 2001, he has stubbornly adhered to his campaign pledge to pay respect to the 2.5 million Japanese war dead who are memorialized at the shrine. The problem is that Yasukuni also enshrines 14 wartime leaders convicted of crimes against humanity by the Allies' postwar Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Koizumi's behavior has so strained relations that Beijing takes a slap at him whenever it can. It has pointedly declined to let him visit, and last month it called home Vice Premier Wu Yi, who was visiting the Aichi Expo, just a few hours before she was scheduled to meet with Koizumi. Likewise, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun called off an annual "no-tie" weekend rendezvous between the two leaders in late May and instead gave Koizumi a starchy reception in his Blue House office.

These actions have stirred Japanese emotions in the runup to tomorrow's anniversary of the surrender. While China and South Korea get ready to celebrate their day of liberation and the "restoration of light," Japanese periodicals have been full of headlines like, "What's Wrong With Yasukuni Visit?," "Don't Let China Dictate . . . ," and "China Is a Terrorist Nation."

Pragmatists who think that Koizumi's play to nationalist sentiment is doing damage to Japan's national interests have increasingly been put on the defensive. Yasuhiro Nakasone, the first postwar prime minister to make an official visit to Yasukuni in 1985, was publicly reviled last month after he urged Koizumi to stop making trips there. A Japanese newspaper recently quoted one former conservative party politician as saying that the current political atmosphere reminds him of prewar Japan.

Lately, the Yasukuni controversy has morphed into a broader argument that Japan's war criminals weren't really criminals at all. LDP Diet member Masahiro Morioka got a buzz of public and political approval a couple of months ago by saying that he thinks the Tokyo Tribunal was a show trial by the victors that "arbitrarily made up such notions as crimes against peace and humanity." He was the first senior politician to dispute the government's official position that Japan accepted the tribunal and its verdicts when it signed the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty as the price of rejoining the community of nations. But that many Japanese share his beliefs was aptly illustrated by the fact that Koizumi kept Morioka on the job as primary parliamentary liaison for labor while leaving it to his chief spokesman to deliver a verbal rebuke. Meanwhile, several Diet colleagues praised Morioka for giving voice to their feelings, at last.

The result of the new Japanese muscle-flexing is that 60 years after a war that ultimately ended colonialism and freed the nations of East Asia to pursue their own fates, three of the biggest among them are eyeing each other's throats -- and the United States has done little more than exchange partners. Today Washington and Tokyo are the tightest of friends and share a deep mistrust of Beijing. Seoul, though nominally still an American ally, clearly sees benefit in getting along with Beijing, just as does Pyongyang. Given the size of the Asian population, and the clout of the Asian economies, lining up on one side of that divide may not necessarily be to our advantage.

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Ayako Doi and Kim Willenson were editor and publisher, respectively, of the Daily Japan Digest from 1990 to 2004.

Taking up arms: Showing a new willingness to get back in the military game, Japan sent troops to a war zone for the first time since WW II when it dispatched 1,000 soldiers to Iraq.