By now, almost everyone who ever heard of Japan is aware Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda called a late evening press conference Sept. 1 to announce abruptly that he intended to resign. After a stunned reaction, potential successors started scrambling for the prime minister's chair.
More important, Mr. Fukuda's sudden departure was telling evidence that Japan was not yet ready to step up to leadership in Asia as the nation has had ineffective prime ministers, with the exception of Junichiro Koizumi, for two decades. Japan has thus relinquished leadership to an emerging China and has boosted the ambitions of South Korea, Indonesia and India to exert influence.
The ally often touted as the "linchpin" in U.S. strategy in Asia has instead shown itself to be a weak link. In particular, the informal triple alliance of Japan, Australia and the United States that has been gradually constructed in recent years appears now to be built on quicksand.
An immediate test for whoever replaces Mr. Fukuda will be passing legislation to permit Japanese warships to carry on refueling tasks in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S. and coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Japan's parliament, or Diet, has authorized those missions only until year's end. Withdrawing that support would disrupt military operations and further damage Japan's international standing.
Medium term, the turbulence in Tokyo threatens U.S. plans to realign its military forces in Asia, notably in Japan and South Korea. Michael Auslin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington suggested that a new Japanese prime minister this month and a new American president in January will have their hands full keeping this plan on track.
"Billions of dollars are needed to move U.S. troops from current bases to Guam or to new facilities in Japan, and Tokyo has pledged to provide much of the funding," Mr. Auslin said. "In addition, Washington expects Japan to continue its role in missile defense, and Japan's Defense Ministry is looking to upgrade weapons systems from Aegis ships to jet fighters."
Longer run, the United States has already expressed disappointment with Japan. The U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, J. Thomas Schieffer, said in May that Japan was spending less on its national defense in relation to its economic strength than any NATO or developed country.
"Yet in a time when the Japanese people are increasingly apprehensive about military threats emanating from adversaries or potential adversaries in the region," Mr. Schieffer told the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, "Japanese citizens do not have to worry about their safety because those adversaries know that an attack upon Japan would be met by the full force and effect of American military power."
"We believe," the ambassador asserted, "that Japan should consider the benefits of increasing its own defense spending to make a greater not lesser contribution to its own security."
After World War II ended 63 years ago this week, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida soon appeared on the scene to begin rebuilding Japan. After him came several "deshi," or followers he had mentored. Those capable prime ministers continued to emphasize economic growth and reliance on the United States for security.
Among the last of them, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was seen as something of a nationalist who nudged Japan into a more active role in security during his five years in office and cultivated working relations with President Ronald Reagan.
After Mr. Nakasone retired in 1987 came a dozen undistinguished prime ministers, some of whom lasted only a few months. The exception was Mr. Koizumi, who was prime minister from April 2001 to September 2006 and cajoled Japan into an assertive foreign policy and security stance. That posture, however, did not survive his departure.
In this dreary landscape, the United States has few alternatives because no other Asian ally has the strategic potential of Japan. Paul S. Giarra, a longtime "Japan hand" now with the Science Applications International Corp., a Washington think tank, was succinct in grappling with the question of dealing with Japan's drift.
"Preserve the basic relationship, recognizing Japan's potential if not current capability," Mr. Giarra said in response to an e-mail query. "Emphasize and exploit cooperation, whenever and wherever possible. Expand around the security relationship to enhance broader global cooperation."
Mr. Giarra's conclusion: "Keep Japan on our side 'no matter what.' "