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Well before Donald Trump came along, casting doubt on U.S. defence of the Asia-Pacific, Japan began to fear for its future in a region threatened by a fast-militarizing China and a nuclear-bound North Korea. But Mr. Trump's election has turned a previously academic debate into a political hot potato for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Suddenly, a country deeply wedded to pacifism is asking whether it must prepare itself for war.

For Japan, which has yet to come fully to terms with its imperialistic past, the debate is nothing short of existential. Japan's Constitution, written during the country's U.S. occupation following the Second World War, renounces war as a sovereign right and even prohibits the maintenance of a standing army. Instead, Japan's so-called Self-Defence Forces (SDF) have been limited to providing disaster and humanitarian relief. The heavy lifting for Japan's security has fallen to the United States, which has 54,000 troops stationed in Okinawa and elsewhere.

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For decades, this arrangement allowed the Japanese to indulge in the illusion of their own pacifism, comfortable in the knowledge that the U.S. military on its own soil guaranteed the peace. Not that this sat well with everyone. Factions within Mr. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for all but four of the past 61 years, have long sought to draft a "normal" Constitution and scrap Article 9's interdiction on the use of force. But public opinion, as well as the country's intellectual and media elites, always considered this pure heresy. "Japan is a very secular society. The closest thing we have to a religion is Article 9," explains Keio University professor Toshihiro Nakayama. "A scholar who defends Article 9 is not [seen as] a scholar but rather as the protector of a sacred text. There has been a kind of liberal arrogance in this regard."

For a long time, the LDP largely played down its constitutional platform in the face of more pressing economic issues. But even before the coming of Mr. Trump, Mr. Abe subtly began preparing the Japanese for the possibility that dared not speak its name. The Abe government "saw what Barack Obama did in Syria and Ukraine and read into it," says Prof. Nakayama, referring to the outgoing U.S. President's refusal to take U.S. military action in those conflicts. "We asked ourselves what he would he do if something happened in this region."

Mr. Abe's government took the first step toward enhancing the country's defence capability by passing legislation in 2015 that "reinterprets" the Constitution to allow Japan's SDF to come to the aid of allies under certain conditions. The move aimed to reassure Washington that Japan intended to pull its weight, within the limits of Article 9, and allow Japanese troops to participate more fully in United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Mr. Trump's election, however, thrust the debate over Japan's remilitarization into an entirely new dimension. During the election campaign, the Republican president-elect accused allies of free-riding off the massive U.S. defence budget, and suggested that Japan and South Korea should acquire nuclear weapons to defend themselves. The latter comment demonstrated, Prof. Nakayama says, a clear misreading of the Japanese psyche, which is forever marked by the painful legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still, Japan can no longer take peace in the region for granted. China is challenging Japan's sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands and establishing a permanent military presence in the South China Sea. A volatile North Korea, meanwhile, is edging closer to nuclear capability.

The immensely popular Mr. Abe, a strong nationalist who supports amending Article 9, has been coy about when he will formally ask the Diet to do so. The LDP and its coalition partners currently have the supermajorities in both houses needed to amend the Constitution. But the changes would still have to be ratified in a national referendum. After Britain's Brexit vote, and Italy's vote to reject constitutional reform, the risk-averse Mr. Abe might consider a referendum too risky. He may have no choice. "The Trump administration will demand much more of a military commitment from Japan," says University of Tokyo professor Izuru Makihara. He warns that, if Mr. Trump presses Japan to join in the war on terrorism, Mr. Abe could find himself in a similar situation to that of former British prime minister Tony Blair, who joined the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

No wonder Japan, even more than most countries, is anticipating the Trump era with trepidation.

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