With all eyes on a rising India, an awakened China and a roiling Islam, we tend to take good old solid Japan (still the world's second-largest economy) as a given. But it's a mistake: these are times that try Japan's soul.
This brilliant, proud society looks to be at another crossroads. Prime Minister Taro Aso has been ignominiously compelled to call a national election next month, despite a possible landslide for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
If that happens, the long-leading Liberal Democratic Party that Mr Aso temporarily heads would face the prospect of having itself become the opposition, at least for the foreseeable future. But this might be healthy for Japan: one true test of the vibrancy of a competitive democracy is the smooth transition from the rule of one party to another.
Until now, Japan has been all but a one-party octopus rarely benefiting from muscular opposition. So, rather than feeling diminished by the calamity that everyone predicts, the LDP should take the longer, patriotic view and respect the right of the Japanese people to put them in their place - at least for the time being.
The electoral integrity of Japanese democracy is not just a source of pride for Japan, but a measure of comfort and security for Asia.
Here's why: its neighbours will never forget the feral Japanese expansionism in the second world war that came to an end with massive US intervention. Even today, America's contribution in reconstructing Japan as a non-militaristic nation stands as a rock of stability in the sea of Asian geopolitics. That the Japanese have so consistently recertified a non- nuclear Japan with a low-profile military is not sufficiently appreciated worldwide. They deserve great credit.
But democracy sometimes produces change - bad as well as good. Should the DPJ come to power, its leaders may begin a serious review of Japan's military posture. It appears that neither the party itself nor party chief Yukio Hatoyama fully accepts that Japan must remain supinely defensive. And now they have a good reason to endorse a policy review: it's called North Korea.
Pyongyang's aggressive missile testing and rhetoric make it possible for Tokyo to revisit Japan's military needs without appearing to be 21st-century warmongers in disguise.
The fact that the unthinkable can now be openly thought should put new pressure on all responsible neighbours and allies not to take Japan's security concerns lightly. Thus, Beijing needs to rethink its North Korean policy and make a pivotal, historic decision: how far down the road of loyalty to communist North Korea does it go if that policy triggers the remilitarisation of Japan? Sure, we understand that Beijing fears shoving North Korea into a destabilisation that could be disruptive to the entire region. But look at it another way, Beijing: suppose your caution winds up pushing Tokyo under a new government into a fearsome militaristic (not to mention nuclear) direction? How exactly would you have come out ahead, then?
For its part, America, still Japan's closest ally, needs to engage in sincere and aggressive triangular diplomacy. This means not de-prioritising Japan, even in an age when China is all the rage. But sometimes you wonder whether the Obama administration gets the nuance: just consider the inexplicable appointment of California lawyer (and big-time Obama campaign fund-raiser) John Roos as the new US ambassador to Tokyo. I'm sorry but this was lame. He was the best America could do for its most important Asian ally?
The Japanese claim they are ever so happy to receive a West Coast figure for once as America's ambassador. But there are plenty of others, of far greater stature, for whom Tokyo would have seemed the more respectful choice. And notice that the Japanese are almost always polite, no matter how trying the situation. But for them, make no mistake about it: these are very trying times indeed.
Tom Plate is a syndicated US columnist. Copyright: Pacific Perspectives Media Centre