Good old Mainichi Shimbun. True to its moderate, working-class roots, it has published an editorial today asking a question I have been asking myself for several days now:
"What is so great about being normal?"
The editorial, entitled, "Is it bad to do it as a country of special qualities?" ("Tokushu na kuni" de wa dame ka? -- Link - J) finds that talk about Japan's need to become normal began in earnest over Japan's potential and eventually non-participation in combat in the First Gulf War. Japan's payment of 13 billion dollars in cash as its contribution to the international military campaign earned the country almost nothing in the way of thanks. Instead, demagogues and commentators, primarily in the United States, lambasted Japan for its "checkbook contribution."
In the reverberations of this seeming diplomatic catastrophe, one that had more to do with Japan's failure to open up its markets to trade than sending its troops overseas, the call arose for a "normalization" of Japan, where governments could use the Self Defense Forces more like a regular military. The most prominent outline for this transition was Ozawa Ichiro's Blueprint for a New Japan, making Ozawa, for a while, the great Japanese hope for the Americans (hard to believe that now, after the Hatoyama premiership).
Japan's struggle and need to become normal became a zeitgeist (actually, it has at times all the attributes of a cult). Just google "Japan" and "normal" or "Japan" and "normalization" to see the immense number of hits they generate.
The recent debate over the constitutionality of an exercise of Japan's UN-guaranteed right to enter into collective self defense -- a debate that is supposed to wind up today-- has highlighted more what Japan stands to lose in exercising CSD than what it is likely to gain.
And this is as it should be.
"Normal" is after all, a loaded term. Its opposite is abnormal, a state that no one would want to be in.
However, what if by historical accident, a country was at once stripped of its armed forces, like an individual ensnarled in a traffic accident who loses a limb? One can view that country or individual as being disabled, as less than normal. One would, if one completely mad, instill in that country or individual an overwhelming desire to become normal. Or, one could acknowledge that "accidents do happen" and move on, not focusing on the quantities that are lacking but the qualities that are present.
Looking upon the individual or the country as "differently abled."
There has been a perplexing disconnect between the global consensus that diversity is a positive, making organizations stronger and more flexible, and the drumbeat of those seeking a more "normal" Japan. Where is the appreciation for Japan's idiosyndratic path, the opportunities a "differently abled" Japan affords its allies? Different is supposed to be good, offering one opportunities to achieve goals in new, creative ways.
The world knowing Japan as the "the country where war is unconstitutional" means that it is possible, albeit not inevitable, for Japan and Japanese to perform functions no other nation or people can. Nakamura Tetsu, the miracle worker of Afghanistan, is adamant in believing that his Peshawar no Kai could not be the incredibly noble and effective organization it has been without locals knowing that it is run by a people that will not participate in military action. (Link)
Of course, the use of the word "normal" was facetious from the beginning. Becoming "normal" for a country with an economy the size of Japan meant becoming powerful.
And becoming powerful is the goal of Abe and Company's still tentative but nevertheless unidirectional procession down the path of toward Japanese military flexibility. Anyone who argues otherwise is being tactically mendacious.
And there is nothing wrong with Japan becoming more powerful. The United States is responsible for far more territory and far too many developments. Its commitments to its treaty allies should probably now be seen as reassuring rather than rock-solid. China seems intent on being a bad neighbor; Putin seems intent on being a villain and the Mideast, well, why would anyone want to be involved in its fratricides, except for all that lovely oil and gas?
In such an environment, a stronger Japan is desirable.
However, does Japan have to throw away its unique characteristics to cope with regional and global contigencies? The New Komeito and most honest brokers would say, "No." They have been arguing vociferously, desperately, that Japan does not have to aspire to normalcy -- just greater physical strength and flexibility.