In a valedictory message, former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi wrote on his homepage last week that among his top priorities for the last five years had been bringing his nation out of the passive and pacifist shell in which the Japanese had wrapped themselves after World War II.
"Japan," he said, "must fulfill a constructive role as a member of the global community."
In that, Koizumi showed himself to be a deshi (disciple) of prime minister Shigeru Yoshida, the towering figure of postwar Japan. As prime minister during the Allied Occupation, Yoshida led a devastated and demoralized nation out of the valley of despair by emphasizing economic development and security in an alliance with the US.
The economic drive accelerated under prime minister Hayato Ikeda, another deshi. In the 1960s, he proclaimed a five-year plan to double the national income by harnessing the energy of the Japanese. That set the country on the road to today's prosperity.
In the international arena, however, Japan took a low posture, seeking to avoid controversy in which any nation that was a customer or supplier might be offended. Critics, mainly in the US, accused Japan of getting a "free ride" on security.
That began to change in the Gulf War of 1991 when Japan was embarrassed by charges that Tokyo had contributed only "checkbook diplomacy" of US$13 billion. Then North Korea lofted a missile over Japan in 1998, which shook the Japanese severely. The Sept. 11, 2001, assaults on the US added to their anxiety.
In their wake, Koizumi has done for Japan's international posture what Ikeda did for the economy. He jolted the Japanese with two visits to North Korea, sent warships to the Indian Ocean and troops to Iraq, meshed Japanese forces with those of the US, and proposed changes in the Constitution that would legitimize collective defense.
Diplomatically he sought a permanent seat for Japan on the UN Security Council, took the initiative in a resolution condemning another North Korean missile shoot, imposed sanctions on North Korea and instructed Japanese diplomats to be more forceful in international forums, especially in Asia.
In his farewell message, Koizumi reaffirmed the reliance on the US for security and his endeavor to have Japan seen as "a responsible member of the international community." Incoming Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to tread the same road, with perhaps differences in style and priorities.
Koizumi's departure deprives US President George W. Bush of a political partner and friend. Another Bush ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is on his way out of 10 Downing Street. But a third, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, seems to be on firm ground.
Coincidentally, Blair and Howard commented last week on their nations' association with the US.
Having often been criticized for opting for a strong alliance with the US, Blair said in Manchester: "Yes, it's hard sometimes to be America's strongest ally." He was quoted by The Associated Press as saying some Britons "only see the price of these alliances. Give them up and the cost in terms of power, weight and influence for Britain would be infinitely greater."
In Canberra, Howard asserted: "None of the security challenges we face can be met without American power and American purpose."
He added: "Australia has also encouraged Japan to play a greater security role regionally and globally. This year's Trilateral Strategic Dialogue between Japan, Australia and the United States has added a new dimension to our relationship."