The second coming of Japan
Japan has put itself at the forefront of international relief efforts in the wake of the devastating South Asian tsunami. Tokyo is acting both out of concern for the victims and to forward its own political-diplomatic strategy. Japan's reaction has demonstrated the role that it desires to - and can - play in its quest for normality.
The scale of the tragedy continues to mount. The death toll is nearing 200,000 and experts warn that the number of casualties could double; as many as five million people have been left homeless.
On January 1, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged US$500 million in financial assistance to the international relief effort. Tokyo has called for a public debt moratorium for some affected countries, and will help establish a tsunami warning system for Indian Ocean countries that is modelled on the Pacific Ocean system introduced in the 1960s.
Perhaps even more significant has been the unprecedented deployment of Self-Defence Forces to the affected areas to help. Tokyo has sent more than 1,000 personnel, three ships, one C-130 transport and five large helicopters. The total deployment could reach 1,700.
Japan is trying to make the best of this tragedy. The government has seized the opportunity to demonstrate that it can play a positive role in the region and beyond. In every statement that Mr Koizumi has made about the disaster, he has explained Japanese actions in the context of 'its responsibility as a member of the international community'.
The size of the aid package, the readiness to consider debt relief, and the Self-Defence Force's presence all remind Asian nations that Japan is still a force to be reckoned with in regional affairs. They help correct the view that China is the only real power in Asia and that Japan can only react to Beijing's initiatives. Several unnamed Japanese government officials have said that the relief effort shows who is 'reliable' and a 'leader' within the region.
At the same time, the nature of the response demonstrates that Japan's new activism is no threat to regional security. Even though the force is leading the way, this military presence is intended to aid the afflicted, not endanger them. This new perception of the force is also important for Japanese audiences, many of whom are still uncomfortable with a more visible and active role for their country's military. Unlike the controversial deployment in Iraq, this effort is closer to home and is making a very visible contribution to ease human suffering.
The humanitarian use of the force, and the call to apply Japan's knowledge and experience in dealing with disasters like tsunami and earthquakes, show how Tokyo can be creative when thinking about international contributions. Japan has distinctive skills and assets it can apply to international problems.
Tokyo will find it easier to win public support, at home and abroad, and it will be able to make a more significant contribution when it uses those assets creatively. To its credit, Japan is doing just that in the aftermath of this horrible tragedy.
Brad Glosserman is director of research at the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu