A high-seas chase across the Sea of Japan has underscored this country's nascent willingness to assert itself in crisis and express power the conventional way - with guns.
Long the world's wealthy pacifist, Japan took the unusual step Tuesday night of firing more than 1,000 rounds and dropping "warning bombs" near two ships that encroached on its waters and ignored requests for identification. The intruders fled into North Korean waters, the government says.
The encounter, which lasted until early yesterday, was the first time Japanese ships have fired warning shots at intruders since 1953 and the first time since World War II that the country's naval destroyers have been deployed in a chase.
The immediate impacts are diverse. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who responded swiftly to the incursion, is winning political points for strong leadership.
But if the ships' North Korean origin can be proved, Japan's reaction could adversely affect US-led attempts to engage North Korea.
At the same time, North Korea's apparent provocation could speed legislative approval of security guidelines that would allow Japanese forces to aid the United States more extensively. Ordinary Japanese may become more inclined to support a sophisticated missile defense system the government is discussing with the US.
"Japan has finally learned it has to do something to protect its own security," says Katsumi Sato, an analyst at the Modern Korea Institute in Tokyo. "This will have a big impact on the US-Japan [security] guidelines being debated now. The bottom line is that Japan has come to a very serious turning point."
National news programs showed video of Japanese destroyer crews braving high winds to blast warning shots at the two ships. Their pursuit stopped when the ships crossed what Tokyo considers its "air defense identification zone," says Defense Agency spokesman Toshihide Terao.
When the coast guard first contacted the 100-foot-long vessels on Tuesday morning, they were off the Noto peninsula some 150 miles northwest of Tokyo.
Both vessels carried the names of real Japanese fishing ships, neither flew a national flag or had fishing equipment visible, and both bristled with communications antennas. When the ships ignored a radio request to stop and started racing northwest, the coast guard began firing the first of hundreds of warning shots.
During the 16-hour pursuit, two destroyers and three surveillance planes from Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (SDF) took over from the coast guard. The destroyers fired 25 shots while P3-C planes dropped 12 anti-submarine bombs - a rare display of power from Japan's well-equipped but low-profile military.
"These two ships came into our territory without permission and broke territorial rules," says Mr. Terao. "We had no choice but to give them a warning."
There is near certainty here that the ships were North Korean. "This isn't the first time North Korea has sent these ships out" to gather information, says a high-ranking Japanese defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Analyst Mr. Sato says espionage isn't the point. "North Korea wants to provoke and threaten Japan so that it would give them food aid and money in return," he says, recalling the "Taepodong" ballistic missile North Korea launched over Japan last summer. "But Japan is ... hardening its attitude toward North Korea."
IN A visit to Seoul last weekend, Mr. Obuchi sounded a tough note, saying Japan would withdraw all aid and take punitive measures should North Korea launch another missile over its territory.
The missile prompted Japan to take a tougher security stance, deciding to build its own spy satellites and begin developing a missile defense system with the US. "We have been heightening our vigilance in wake of the missile crisis," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Sadaaki Numata.
The missile also paved the way for this week's gunfire, says Sato. "If there was no Taepodong, Japan would have let [the ships] go, even in a situation like this."
While the drama has unnerved the country, Obuchi may have been thinking about more than just his nation's security. "There's a certain inevitable conclusion you have to draw that there was a political decision that 'We're going to challenge these ships,' " says a diplomat in Tokyo, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
The prime minister's ruling Liberal Democratic Party faces important local elections. Support for his decisiveness may also provide Obuchi with some personal vindication, as he was widely dismissed as a milquetoast leader early in his tenure.
Obuchi is also headed for the US soon. If he can use this event to pass the security guidelines, it would be a nice achievement to take to Washington.
The new rules would allow the SDF to provide logistical support to US forces, help search for and rescue US military personnel, inspect ships on the high seas, and ensure enforcement of United Nations economic sanctions. Polls show public opposition to an expanded SDF role outweighs support, but since North Korea's missile launch, Japanese are feeling increasingly vulnerable.
That unease could work against US and South Korean efforts to engage North Korea. Since 1994, the US has struggled to preserve a deal under which North Korea would receive two new nuclear reactors in exchange for abandoning its nuclear program. Japan has pledged $1 billion to that effort - a contribution that may become politically impossible if North Korea is seen here as unremittingly belligerent.
* Staff writer Cameron W. Barr contributed to this report.