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Japanese diplomacy faces formidable challenges in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. With momentum building for reform of the United Nations, this will be a crucial year in Japan’s bid for permanent membership on the powerful U.N. Security Council.

This quest speaks volumes about Japan’s spectacular postwar recovery. Yet a number of diplomatic anomalies remain, such as the frigid relations with North Korea. By contrast, ties between Japan and South Korea are warmer than at any time since bilateral relations were normalized 40 years ago.

Japan opened normalization talks with North Korea in 1991, but prospects for rapprochement continue to be clouded by the fates of Japanese nationals believed kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Five of the abductees and their family members now live in Japan, thanks to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s two visits to Pyongyang over the past two years. But the fate of 10 others, including Ms. Megumi Yokota, is still unknown. Pyongyang has added insult to injury by presenting remains it claimed were those of Ms. Yokota but which Japanese DNA tests later proved to be someone else’s.

Late last year, North Korea brushed aside Tokyo protests and its request for a further investigation, and indicated it might call off government-level talks on the abduction issue. That understandably intensified Japanese calls for economic sanctions. Such pressure tactics, however, could make the North Koreans even more adamant. What is needed is multilateral diplomatic efforts to bring the isolated country into the international community. The six-party forum on the North Korean nuclear crisis is a good place to do so.

Japan also has anomalous relations with Russia. Tokyo-Moscow ties are overshadowed by a continuing territorial dispute over the Northern Territories. The 1993 Tokyo Declaration calls for the conclusion of a peace treaty through the return of all four disputed islands. President Vladimir Putin, however, proposed last month that the treaty be signed with the handover of only the smaller Habomai and Shikotan islands. That proposal is unacceptable to the Japanese.

Mr. Putin is expected to visit Japan this year, which happens to be the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Russo-Japanese Treaty of Amity. As with any territorial dispute, the islands’ issue is a hard nut to crack, yet the Putin visit should provide both sides with an opportunity to explore avenues toward a mutually acceptable settlement.

Relations with China, meanwhile, remain unsettling. Last year, China began developing natural-gas wells in a section of the East China Sea contiguous to Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Moreover, Chinese nuclear-powered submarines intruded into Japanese territorial waters. While the Japanese are rightly offended by these moves, the Chinese have their own cause for anger: Prime Minister Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial to Japan’s war dead.

Mr. Koizumi believes, as many Japanese do, that praying at the shrine is praying for peace. But the Chinese regard official homage at Yasukuni — whose honored dead include Japanese leaders convicted by an international war crimes tribunal — as a sign that Japan seeks to whitewash its militaristic past.

Mr. Koizumi has publicly pledged to visit Yasukuni once a year, but his choice of a different date each year — he avoided making a New Year’s visit this time around — indicates that he is well aware of the controversy his visits generate. If it is difficult to enshrine class-A war criminals separately, the government should seriously consider building a nonreligious national memorial that everyone can visit without reserve.

The Iraq crisis continues to weigh heavily on Japanese diplomacy. With legislative elections set for Jan. 30, armed insurgents are stepping up their anti-American offensives. As a result, Japanese troops in Samawah, southern Iraq, could face greater security risks. Depending on how the democratic process develops, withdrawing the troops ahead of schedule could well become a realistic option.

Here at home, moves to realign U.S. military forces will likely accelerate in parallel to efforts to strengthen the Japan-U.S. security alliance. These moves bear close watching, given the possibility that the Self-Defense Forces might be incorporated in the U.S. military’s global strategy beyond the framework of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

At the end of this year, leaders of 13 countries in East Asia — the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China and South Korea — are set to meet for the first time. The East Asian summit will likely show, among other things, whether Japan has the solid support of its Asian friends to win a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

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