As Prime Minister, Mr Murayama is also the Supreme Commander of Japan's 233,000- strong armed forces, known as the Self-Defence Forces, and in real terms he had little alternative but to acknowledge the right of the military he commands to exist. Despite the accusations of hypocrisy from the opposition parties in the Diet (parliament), he jettisoned his party's anti-militarist stance as smoothly as he slid into a coalition with his conservative rivals, the Liberal Democratic Party, last month. 'Please listen to this carefully,' said Mr Murayama to fierce heckling in the Diet. 'As long as we keep the defence-only posture and as long as they are kept at a minimum, the Self-Defence Forces are constitutional.'
But if political expediency is forcing dizzy U-turns in Socialist Party policy, the opposition is determined not to let Mr Murayama off the hook too easily. 'How can you scrap basic principles of your party's founding?' asked Tsutomu Hata, the former prime minister, displaced by Mr Murayama in June. 'I must say your government is an irresponsible one created just to keep your two parties in power.'
Article 9 of Japan's constitution, imposed by the US after the Second World War, prohibits the maintenance of 'land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential'. But after the shock of the Korean war and the threat of Communism spreading, the United States quickly prodded Japan into setting up the so-called Self-Defence Forces (SDF). Today there are 233,818 men and women in the army, navy and air force. Japan's military budget is the third largest in the world after the US and Russia, and its navy is the biggest in the Pacific after the US. The SDF's state-of-the-art destroyers, anti-submarine equipment, radar and missile systems belie the timid, self-demeaning image it conveys in public.
The existence of the SDF was justified throughout the 38 years of LDP rule by a legalistic sleight of hand that argued that the country's right to defend itself superseded any specific clause in the constitution. The Socialists, however, made an anti-militaristic pacifism into one of the party's main policies. This is still one of the main obstacles to Tokyo's long- cherished goal of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
In 1990 the Socialists were the main opponents of Japan playing any role in the anti-Iraq alliance in the Gulf war. After fierce international criticism, the government belatedly promised to donate money to the war effort. In 1992 the Socialists held up for months a government plan to send peace- keeping troops to Cambodia. Finally the government succeeded in sending peace-keepers to Cambodia, arguing that after the Gulf war debacle, Japan would be exposed to even greater international ridicule if it did not make some contribution. But Japanese public opinion has become so accustomed to Socialist pacifism that the death of one Japanese policeman in Cambodia threatened to scuttle the operation.