crisis: Time running out for vacillating Japan
By Axel Berkofsky
Is Japan ready to support a US military strike against Iraq without the United
Nations' go-ahead? The question is again dominating Japan's security policy
agenda. It has almost become a part of day-to-day politics to see politicians
appearing in front of the rolling cameras contradicting one another on the
extent of Japan's engagement in a war against Iraq.
"Don't expect anything resembling a clear-cut position from Japan" is the
message when high-ranking politicians of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party
(LDP) and bureaucrats elaborate on Japan's willingness and ability to support
US plans to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by military force.
Most recently it was Taku Yamazaki, the LDP secretary general, committing yet
another verbal faux pas on television as he announced on a talk show that Japan
is ready to cooperate with the United States in a military strike against Iraq
with or without a UN resolution. But Yamazaki, one of the megaphones-in-chief
people listen to when trying to make sense of Japan's increasingly
incomprehensible security policy, quickly toned down his belligerent line, sat
out the uproar in the studio and put the International Atomic Energy
Association back in charge.
"It must be up to the International Atomic Energy Association to come up with
clear evidence that Baghdad is developing weapons of mass destruction to
authorize any kind of Japanese support for a military strike," Yamazaki
Those familiar with LDP politicians' skill at securing negative headlines for
themselves were hardly surprised. Many suggested that Yamazaki's comments show
that Japan is not using common sense in security policy matters by following
the United States into a war that has no legal basis.
For its part, the political opposition has another good reason to pick on the
government as another round of ill-fated rhetoric comes from Japan's
policymakers, whose first priority apparently is to please the Pentagon at any
"Does the government think that the Japan-US alliance is more important than
the UN Charter?" asked Katsuya Okada, secretary general of the Democratic Party
of Japan. Kazuo Shii, leader of Japan's Communist Party, described Prime
Minister Junichiro Koizumi as a "coward too afraid to oppose US unilateral and
illegal military action against Iraq".
Indeed, Japan's stance on Iraq has been vague at best over the recent months.
Whereas Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi has been very reluctant to elaborate
on Japan's role in a US attack on Iraq beyond diplomatic platitudes and "let's
wait and see" rhetoric before the Diet (parliament), she is much more
straightforward when talking to trigger-happy US policymakers in Washington.
Chatting with US counterpart Colin Powell in Washington recently, Kawaguchi
broke her silence and declared that Japan is "prepared to provide support to
the US in the case of a war with Iraq".
Gone seem to be the days when policymakers in Tokyo advocated "UN-centrism",
defining the United Nations as the only and ultimate decision maker in
international security issues. Whereas the 1980s and 1990s Japan decided not to
have even an opinion on international security issues unless the UN did, it
seems Tokyo has now joined the United States in considering the UN's go-ahead
for international military operations as optional when getting rid of Saddam is
Reducing the UN to irrelevance, however, might backfire badly for Japan, since
the country still has an eye on a permanent UN Security Council seat (see
Japan's battle for a Security Council seat, January 17).
The United States counters that military action, with or without UN blessing,
is still the only entrance ticket to the Security Council as far as Japan is
concerned. At a time when active Japanese support to help the United States
invade Iraq is close to the heart of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and
others in the Pentagon, the US signals that its support for Japan's quest for a
permanent UN Security Council seat might also depend on Japan's willingness to
support US wars. "Coalition-building" American-style.
"Let's go easy on Japan," warn more cautious policymakers in the administration
of US President George W Bush who fear that there is a danger of South
Korea-style anti-American demonstrations in Japan.
Diehard advocates of the US-Japan alliance, such as Weston Konishi, program
associate at the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington, dismiss
those fears and say that Japanese support for US military all over the world
would make their bilateral alliance "special" at last.
"Indeed, the possible war with Iraq presents both a risk and an opportunity for
Japan to solidify its alliance with the United States. Few expect Japan to make
a direct contribution to a military campaign. However, if Japan can in fact
make a significant contribution to a postwar peacekeeping and humanitarian
relief effort, it will serve as a new model of what constitutes a special
relationship with the United States," Konishi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun,
Japan's biggest daily newspaper.
Whether this is really what Japan wants or rather an ill-fated strategy to get
Pentagon officials off their backs remains to be seen, and Koizumi's referring
to Japanese support for a US attack on Iraq as a "hypothetical question" is
Speculation or reality, it turns out that Japan already has a plan in place on
what to do during and after a US attack on Iraq. The government has reportedly
filed a three-stage plan for supporting the US military by deploying Japanese
Self-Defense Forces to carry out logistical support during a military strike as
well as peacekeeping activities in a post-Saddam Iraq.
Sending Japanese military to the Middle East might put badly needed oil exports
from the Middle East to Japan in jeopardy, some in the government fear. "We
cannot escape harsh accusations by Middle East nations of taking part in
Washington's war," a Japanese government official maintained, indicating that
sending military to Iraq after a war strongly opposed by Arab nations might run
counter to Japanese economic interests.
That's the price to pay for not opposing US unilateralism, said Andrew DeWitt,
associate professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. "Japan should have voiced
some explicit support for the French, Germans and others opposing the war as
the means to remake the Middle East. This would have given evidence of critical
and strategic thinking that seem to be absent in Japan. Bush and Rumsfeld won't
be around forever, and Japan could enhance its international standing by being
[active] in support of a multilateralism that looks set to rebound strongly,"
It seems Japan has chosen a different road for now, thanks to Koizumi's
inability to come up with ideas on security policy matching a self-declared
But there is still hope, said DeWitt, who believes that deep down Koizumi is
still flirting with the example of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of
opposing military action and turning away from the warmongers in Washington and
London. "When the shooting starts, Bush would be unwise to expect Koizumi to be
his [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair in the Far East just yet. Rather, we
may see Koizumi forced to morph into a Schroeder."
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