With gunfire stilled in the Persian Gulf, a tiny fleet of four Japanese wooden-hulled minesweepers and two support vessels are slowly steaming toward the area to make a long-delayed contribution. Unfortunately, the ships are not scheduled to arrive in the Gulf until later this month when most of the remaining mines already will have been swept.

At the moment, more than 30 minesweepers from seven countries are operating in waters off Kuwait. Since some 750 Iraqi mines have been destroyed so far and about the same number are believed to remain in place, the Japanese hope at least a few will be saved for their late arrival.The dispatch of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels was controversial. The first ships to go abroad on a mission other than for training since World War II, they were delayed for many weeks while the Kaifu administration sought the understanding of the nation's citizens and leaders of opposition parties. Substantial resistance even today remains within Japan to sending these small ships abroad.

At the height of the opposition in April, extremists exploded bombs in six cars parked outside Self-Defense Force dormitories. Sparks also flew during parliamentary debates on the issue. Citizens in several Japanese cities filed suits against the government for allegedly planning to act in violation of the country's postwar constitution, which renounces "the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes." But trying to stop the minesweepers under this pretext made no sense, since the constitution merely renounces wars of aggression. And the Gulf war, such as it was, is over.

Although certainly not a popular decision by the Kaifu cabinet, sending the little fleet to the Gulf became diplomatically imperative when Germany dispatched its own minesweepers to the region. Bonn also operates under postwar constitutional constraints on military actions, but decided the Gulf war was over and its vessels could be sent.

It should be clear by now that dispatching a few ships on an 8,000- mile journey will not to lead to Japanese combat excursions or a revival of the country's military posture. Such fears, understandably, persist in the Southeast Asian countries that suffered from Japanese aggression before 1945.

Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu tried to allay such concerns during a recent tour of five Southeast Asian countries. He stressed that Japan has firmly resolved never to repeat the military actions that had such tragic consequences.

Indeed, based on the state of Japan's present-day military forces, it is inconceivable that Tokyo could pose a meaningful threat to its neighbors. It would be surprising, for example, if Japanese forces could successfully defend the northern island of Hokkaido much less the rest of the country from a Soviet attack. Moreover, considering the tremendous labor shortage in Japan and the public's intense anti-war feelings, it would be astounding if some future administration tried to revive the draft.

At present, Japan's supplies of ammunition and spare parts are only sufficient to sustain ground, air and naval combat for a few months. Tokyo, which spends only about 1 percent of its gross national product each year on its defense forces, uses the funds mainly to upgrade military technology rather than to prepare for repulsing a major invasion.

But just for the sake of argument, let us assume the Japanese government some day restores the draft and survives the resulting political backlash. It would still be unthinkable for the nation's military leaders to launch another invasion of China or to attack U.S. or Soviet forces in the Pacific. All three of these countries maintain massive military establishments that would make a Japanese attack almost suicidal. The mere idea is preposterous.

Although Japan is officially neutral, it provided bases for the U.S. military during the Korean and Vietnamese wars and again during the Gulf war. Even today, Washington's many military facilities in the Japanese islands are supported without question by Tokyo, even to the extent of providing much of the financial support under the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

Moreover, Japan in recent months has contributed some $13 billion in support of the U.S.-led coalition forces in the Persian Gulf. As recently as last week, Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama pledged that his country "is determined to play a further role in resolving global issues in close coordination and cooperation with the United States." Note that he did not promise unilateral measures.

Japanese leaders admit they played too passive a role in the Gulf war. Some have expressed their frustration with the overly cautious Kaifu administration, which waited until the eleventh hour to accept international responsibility and finally send the minesweepers.

By any definition, Japan's performance in the Gulf crisis has been lackluster. But this is not to say the government didn't try. Only recently, Mr. Kaifu tried without success to create a United Nations peace cooperation corps that would have included uniformed Japanese personnel. He also offered to assign Japanese military aircraft to transport refugees in Kuwait to their home countries. Again, the idea was shot down for lack of public support.

Nevertheless, the fear remains in Japan and Asia that dispatching the minesweepers will start the country down a slippery slope. Could this lead to the transporting of nuclear fuel by commercial carriers under escort by warships of the Maritime Self Defense Force? Might the government send ships abroad to rescue threatened Japanese civilians, or merely to carry out some old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy?

These concerns likely will be addressed by Emperor Akihito this autumn when he and Empress Michiko tour Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Kaifu administration is convinced the emperor's reassurances will go a long way toward calming regional fears of a resurgent Japanese military. Don't count on it.

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