Tokyo Flying the Rising Sun flag, a destroyer, a minesweeper and a supply ship left Japanese naval bases Sunday headed for the Indian Ocean. Twenty-four hours later, a German reconnaissance unit left its home base to help plan patrols that German warships will conduct on seas between the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.
With these and other missions, the two major powers that went down in defeat in World War II are accelerating their half-century-old but still highly charged task of becoming "normal countries," states free of postwar restrictions. This recasting of their sense of place in world affairs may prove to rank among the more important legacies of Sept. 11.
Neither Japan nor Germany is rushing into Afghanistan. Each is cautiously providing support, mostly logistical, from a distance. But their quick engagement could signal the beginnings of more muscular foreign policies that match the two countries' standing as the world's second- and third-largest economies.
"We have reached the end of the postwar period in German history," said Volkmar Schultz, a member of the foreign relations committee, in an interview at the Reichstag Parliament building where graffiti scrawled by Soviet troops in 1945 remain on the walls. "We cannot automatically run away from military action. Since Sept. 11, most of the political class in Germany accepts this as an unavoidable fact."
After quelling a parliamentary revolt by some members of the Greens party the junior partner in his coalition government German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder committed 3,900 troops to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Few if any German soldiers are likely to see combat, but Germans still feel they've passed old limits.
"There truly is a new historic dimension," President Johannes Rau said in an interview. "Among Germans, there is still very, very much anxiety ... This is a new reality for many."
So with little fanfare, three German transport planes left for the U.S. air base at Incirlik in Turkey on Monday to provide support for operations in Afghanistan. Off the east coast of Africa, two German frigates and escort vessels will soon patrol international waters in conjunction with the navies of the United States and France.
In Japan on Sunday, the supply ship Towada, the minesweeper Uraga and the destroyer Sawagiri left to join three other warships sent earlier this month to monitor shipping lanes.
Ten years ago, neither the German nor Japanese governments could muster even logistical support for the Persian Gulf War effort. Instead, each preferred to write large checks as their expression of their commitment to the cause.