AS JAPAN'S PRIME MINISTER, Junichiro Koizumi, retires this month, attention has turned to his likely successor, Shinzo Abe (pronounced Ah-bay), currently the chief cabinet secretary. Abe has garnered major headlines this summer for his musings on, among other subjects, the necessity for Japan to develop preemptive strike capabilities in the wake of North Korea's July 4 missile launches. Should he become prime minister, Abe has indicated that he would continue the controversial practice of visiting the Yasukuni shrine to honor Japan's war dead. And he would also present a comprehensive reform proposal for Japan's constitution. These remarks are as good an indication as any of where Japan is headed.

Abe's comments on the North Korean missile launches are a welcome reminder of Japan's newly pro-active approach to defense policy. But while Japan is making strides toward becoming a "normal country," it has yet to gain regional acceptance for its assumption of greater responsibility for Asian security.

The greatest obstacle to regional acceptance of Japan's growing security role is Tokyo's own inability to move beyond the country's historical legacy of imperial aggression. The most potent symbol of this failure is the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of Japan's war dead are commemorated on tablets inscribed with their names, including those of fourteen generals and admirals designated as "Class A" war criminals during the postwar trials in Tokyo.

Koizumi's annual pilgrimage to the shrine has allowed Beijing to use the history issue against Japan, its regional competitor. Moreover, Yasukuni visits do real harm to Japan's vital relationship with South Korea, where anti-Japanese politicians use them to burnish their nationalist credentials. The recent, much-publicized release of a memo written many years ago by the late Emperor Hirohito stating his opposition to shrine visits may provide Abe with sufficient pretext to establish a moratorium on pilgrimages and find another way of honoring Japan's war dead. The new prime minister would gain much by seizing the opportunity.

But even if the new prime minister announced that he would not visit the shrine, and even if China and South Korea were mollified on this score, Japan must still undertake major internal reform to reassert itself in the region. This brings up the issue most commonly cited as an obstacle to closer U.S.-Japan security cooperation: Japan's constitution, specifically Article 9, which tightly restricts its security policy. It would not be surprising if Abe's promise to revise the constitution ended up as the central, politically risky feature of his administration.

Americans should welcome Abe's effort to reform Japan's constitution: He plans to codify the many steps, including some that Japan has already taken, to secure its and the region's security. No matter how the Japanese government interprets the current text of Article 9, it is clear that there is already a grave discrepancy between Japan's possession of the world's fourth-best-funded military and a constitutional prohibition on the maintenance of "land, sea, and air forces." So long as our shared commitment to liberal democracy is the basic principle of common U.S.-Japanese action, it would be fitting for our ally's constitution to be openly reconciled to principled action.

No matter how the constitutional debate unfolds in Tokyo, Japan can still take two immediate steps to bolster the alliance.

The first involves Japan's Cabinet Legislation Bureau. The question of collective self-defense is often qualified as "prohibited by Japan's constitution" in the international media without any reference to this admittedly opaque panel of legal experts within the prime minister's Cabinet Office. The CLB is responsible for ruling on the matter, and not only can it decide that collective self-defense is allowed, it has already made decisions on similarly controversial defense issues at the behest of insistent prime ministers.

Abe's push for constitutional reform indicates that he would (quite rightly) prefer to enshrine Japan's right to exercise collective self-defense in law. But the option remains open for him to press the CLB to revise the official view on the legality of collective self-defense under the constitution as it is written today.

Which method Japan pursues to clarify its position on collective self-defense is not just a matter of splitting legal hairs. As Pyongyang tries to develop the ability to strike the American homeland with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, Japan's current stance on collective self-defense would prohibit using its AEGIS-equipped destroyers or the X-band radar that is under construction to intercept a ballistic missile on track to strike the United States. The alliance would not survive such a debacle, and no Japanese military commander should be put in the position of having to choose between violating his constitution and betraying an ally when the missiles fly.

The other oft-cited obstacle to closer cooperation between the United States and Japan is the latter's defense budget. It is currently capped at one percent of GDP, a figure that confounds Tokyo's efforts to modernize its self-defense forces. Additionally, this modest defense budget interferes with Japan's efforts to shift its posture toward the defense of territories along the western portion of the Japanese archipelago, and to participate in more coalition operations abroad.

This is another area where the prospects for change on Abe's watch will be significantly enhanced. A little acknowledged fact is that while Koizumi earned strong reformer credentials, he also maintained a career-long alliance with the Ministry of Finance and never challenged its prerogatives in setting the national and defense budgets.

Abe, having made his career in foreign and defense policy, is in a stronger position to challenge the Finance Ministry and push for a more realistic military budget. If Abe makes progress rewriting Article 9 of Japan's constitution, or the CLB revises its view on collective self-defense, the next prime minister will have a major opportunity to recalculate Japan's defense budget in accordance with its newly acknowledged international responsibilities.

While Abe's recent statements have clarified his likely approach to Japan's most pressing issues, there remains sufficient room in his stated positions for him to address each with varying degrees of discretion. In short, he is poised to consolidate and build on the progress that Koizumi's government has made toward Japan's emergence as a normal nation.

Christopher Griffin is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

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