In the light of his ill-judged visits to a shrine commemorating, among others, Japanese war criminals, it is not surprising Japan's neighbours view Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plans to tinker at the edges of Japan's long-standing pacifism with deep suspicion.
Still, the prime minister's proposals unveiled last week, allowing Japan to come to the defence of its allies for the first time, move the country in the right direction. So long as they are accompanied by energetic diplomacy, they should make the region more secure, not less.
Since its defeat in 1945, Japan has been a model global citizen, contributing to peace and prosperity in East Asia. The nation's pacifist postwar constitution, written by Japan's American occupiers, must take some credit. At its heart, Japan forever renounces the use of war to settle international disputes. This pledge helped reassure neighbours that Japanese militarism never would stalk Asia again, and it allowed the U.S. to lay down the law in the western Pacific.
That security guarantee, in turn, let the Japanese race down the path to prosperity, having thrown off the army uniform in favour of the salaryman's suit. For many Japanese, the constitution is not only a source of pride, but also a national treasure.
Dangers are growing, however, and Japan's arrangements are looking out of date. Threats come from North Korea, whose engineers have developed nuclear bombs and now are working on the missile technology to carry them. China is nursing grievances, building its military power and challenging Japan's control of long-held islands out in the East China Sea.
At home, nagging doubts remain about the surety of the security guarantee of an American superpower that is distracted and eager to avoid conflict with China. The doubts are mutual: Some American strategists are fed up with Japan free-riding on American security. Under today's interpretation of the constitution, Japan may not shoot down a North Korean missile flying over its islands on the way to California. If war struck the Korean peninsula, Japan could not even refuel an American plane heading for the fight. American strategists want Japan to play a bigger part in the security of the alliance.
More than any recent Japanese leader, Abe understands all this. To bolster his country's security, he already has taken what by Japan's cautious standards are notable steps, including appointing the country's first national-security adviser and devising a national-security strategy. The latest proposals are a push not to change the constitution but to reinterpret what it may allow -- in particular the principle of collective self-defence, or coming to the aid of allies.
China cries foul, accusing Japan of militarism, though its own airwaves are full of marching troops and screaming jets. Its misunderstanding seems almost wilful, however. Other than peacekeeping, there is no question of Japan's deploying troops beyond its home waters. The difficulty Abe is having in persuading his countrymen to accept even these relatively small changes shows Japan has no yearning for belligerence. The main effect of the new approach will be to help Japan work more closely with American forces in logistics, intelligence and the like.
Anywhere else, Abe's proposals would be unexceptional. Given the havoc that wartime Japan wrought and the country's rocky relations with its neighbours, however, the reforms need to go hand-in-hand with vigorous diplomacy. If they are to enhance security, rather than undermine it, Abe must reassure the region Japan's intentions are limited and well-meaning, not the first step in a militarist revival.