TOKYO – The Japanese, known for their legendary stoicism, have remained true to form during the recent North Korean nuclear crisis. Ride the subways or walk the streets of Tokyo and there's little indication that they're in the crosshairs of an unstable dictator who fired a missile in their direction last year and just a few weeks ago tested a nuclear device.
There are no major public demonstrations on the streets or efforts to build bomb shelters as some Americans did in the 1950's in response to the Soviet nuclear threat. Instead, the mood in Tokyo appears to be somewhere between quiet anger over their North Korean neighbors actions and steely determination to do something big that will send both North Korea and its sponsor, China, an unmistakable message.
The quiet anger is represented by the recent ascension of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who not unlike President Bush when he was elected, has a thin public policy resume, but a rich political heritage. Abe's father was foreign minister in the 1980's and his grandfather was also prime minister shortly after World War II.
But Abe the grandson's rise to power has been fueled primarily by his ability to personify the outrage that many Japanese have felt over the kidnapping and likely killing of a young Japanese girl named Megumi Yokota. The 13-year old girl was walking to school when she was kidnapped in 1977 and taken to North Korea where she likely served as a Japanese language teacher before dying under mysterious circumstances.
Yokota's disappearance became relevant to the current North Korean debate in Japan when the North Korean government recently confirmed what had been suspected: that they had indeed kidnapped her some 25 years earlier.
While missiles landing near your coastline and nuclear weapons being tested a few hundred miles from your shore are plenty annoying in and of themselves, nothing has galvanized public opinion in Japan like the Yokota incident and no one has benefited as much from that outrage as Prime Minister Abe.
The anger felt by him and millions of his fellow citizens may be at a low boil, but continued nuclear noises from their North Korean neighbors may just trigger an explosion and cause the Japanese, led by their new prime minister, to react to Kim Jong Il by throwing overboard several sacred cows that have proved foundational to the Japanese for the last 50 years.
The first is the nation's constitution which was written by U.S. occupation forces after World War II. Though having served the nation well as it built itself into a formidable economic power, it is also panned by some, most notably Abe, as being an American imposed document that forces the Japanese to renounce war and forbids them from maintaining an army.
To be sure, Japan does indeed have armed forces, but they are technically known as "self-defense forces" and are not to be used for foreign military adventures. Prime Minister Abe has made noises about re-writing the constitution and the first thing to go may be the war renunciation clause.
The second sacred cow that may be sacrificed on the altar of Kim Jong Il's nuclear madness is Japan's adherence to the so-called three non-nuclear policies--namely that Japan will never "posses, produce or permit" nuclear weapons.
Some hardliners think the policy quaint, a relic from a bygone era. Others wonder whether the U.S. nuclear umbrella that it has relied on for the last 50 years will really hold and whether American forces will defend Japan in the event it is nuked by North Korea with say the same fervor as it would if Kim Jong Il were to send a missile to Santa Monica.
How Japan responds will at least partially depend on how the Bush administration responds to Japan and the North Korea challenge.
President Bush scored high marks with ordinary Japanese when he told reporters that one of the most poignant moments in his administration was when Yokota's mother, a noted activist who shares Bush's devout Christian faith, came to the White House and told the president her daughter's story.
But the Japanese will also be looking carefully at what level of assurances Bush will give them about a full U.S. response should it be attacked by the North Koreans, and they may also very well be probing to see if the U.S. would mind terribly if they too joined the nuclear club.
So far, there doesn't appear to be a mass desire to do that yet, but if Japan feels that the U.S. is telling them they're on their own, they may just decide that the only way to stop North Korea is to rearm and go nuclear.
Without vigorous U.S. leadership, it's entirely possible that Japan may renounce it's renunciation of war, go nuclear and proceed down a path of increased militarism. It will be up to President Bush to reassure Japan that he shares their outrage over North Korean behavior and that Japan's security will be best secured as a result of its special relationship with its former enemy, the United States.
Mark Joseph is the author of Faith, God & Rock 'n' Roll and the soon to be published Rock Gets Religion. Born and raised in Tokyo, he has had a long journalism career in print, radio and television, including a decade as the Los Angeles-based U.S. correspondent for two Japanese radio stations, Tokyo FM and FM Yokohama, and Japan's NHK TV.
Mr. Joseph has anchored several television talk shows, including The Entertainment Report for CNN, and produced the soundtrack for the hit major motion picture The Passion of the Christ. He is an award winning music producer, film producer and media strategist, and is frequently quoted and published in the national media as an expert on the intersection of faith and pop culture.
Mark Joseph is a film producer and marketing expert who has worked on the development and marketing of 25 films. His most recent book is The Lion, The Professor & The Movies: Narnia's Journey To The Big Screen.