Jitters over signs that North Korea might test another long-range missile have hastened Japan's gradual move away from a half-century of strict pacifism.

Japan last week sounded markedly different from the country that usually takes great pains to avoid any stridency that could evoke memories of its wartime militarism.

Government officials joined Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright last Monday to issue a threat--of economic and diplomatic consequences, but still a threat--to North Korea if it fires another rocket over Japanese territory, as it did last August.

On Tuesday, the Japanese military released an annual report thick with warnings about the dangers from North Korea. On the same day, the Japanese parliament formed councils to study replacing the constitution, established during the U.S. occupation of the country after World War II, that prohibits Japan from using military force.

Later in the week, Japanese officials watched as Defense Secretary William S. Cohen endorsed their plans to put Japan's own spy satellite in orbit and to begin research on a ballistic missile defense system.

"Public opinion has changed dramatically since August of last year, when North Korea shot off its missile," said historian and political analyst Hideaki Kase. "More and more, people are getting apprehensive."

For most of five decades, Japan has been militant about its pacifism. Beefing up its army and navy has been both inflammatory and illegal. But the continued belligerence from North Korea, China's growing might and uncertainties about the reliability of the United States in the region are causing Japan to begin edging away from its insistence on an impotent military.

Two months ago, parliament gave much debated approval to revisions in Japan's military alliance with the United States that give Japanese forces new authority to provide logistic support to U.S. combat forces in the vaguely defined "area around Japan."

And while the councils set up by parliament to study a new constitution are expected to ponder the matter for years, such incremental moves are important in a country that typically builds consensus before making major policy changes.

Progress is far enough along that path to allow politicians like Shingo Nishimura, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a member of parliament, to bluntly advocate rearmament.

"Japan must be like NATO countries. We must have the military power and the legal authority to act on it," he said in an interview Friday. "We ought to have aircraft carriers, long-range missiles, long-range bombers. We should even have the atomic bomb." He acknowledged that "I'm probably in the minority there."

It was Japan's disastrous defeat in World War II, hastened by the American use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, that prompted the Japanese aversion to militarism. Japan was content to blame the war on adventurist military leaders and cling to the U.S. military umbrella while it made a dramatic economic recovery.

The 1947 constitution, dictated in large part by the commander of the American occupation forces, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, states in Article 9 that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes."

Japan maintains a lightly equipped 243,000-strong military that is called the Self Defense Force and is tightly restricted to avoid any appearance of militarism. But those restrictions are being called into question.

"If other countries send their young men into risky situations, why shouldn't Japan?" said Keizo Takemi, a member of the parliament's upper house and an expert on foreign affairs. "There is still a strong influence of pacifism, but with that, we recognize that we must have the ability to defend ourselves."

The immediate spark for these concerns was North Korea's launch of a three-stage rocket over Japan last Aug. 31; Pyongyang later said it was a satellite launch.

"No one feels safe with missiles flying over their head," said John Neuffer, a political analyst for the Mitsui Marine Research Institute in Tokyo. "That set off a lengthy chain reaction.

"There's a sense of unease, a sense that Japan should play a little bigger role in its defense of the region," he said. "Does that translate into fervent nationalism? I don't think so. But it's awakened the nation into understanding the region is not as safe as it thought."

North Korea continues to test its neighbors, and in March, Japan for the first time used a destroyer and fired its guns to chase two North Korean spy ships out of its waters. Of equal but more distant concern to many Japanese is China, a traditional rival that Japan sees as quietly building its military and economic strength for an eventual contest for superiority in the region.

But the U.S. defense commitment is looking slightly less secure to some Japanese. They wonder whether the United States would be eager to protect Japan if conflict erupted with North Korea or China.

After the North Korean missile launch, Japan was displeased that there was no warning from American intelligence; confirmation of what had happened was slow in coming from the United States.

That prompted Japan to announce that it would put its own spy satellite in orbit. Japan also has announced it will engage in joint research with the United States on a missile defense system, despite objections by China that it will disrupt the balance of power in the region. And Japan said it wants to buy aerial tankers that could extend the range of its fighter planes.

CAPTION: GLANCE AT MAJOR ASIAN FORCES (This chart was not available)