Asia Program

Events

"Japan Sets Out"

October 16, 2001 // 12:00am

By Amy McCreedy
Asia Program Associate

Tomohito Shinoda, Associate Professor, International University of Japan
Toshiaki Miura, Political Correspondent, American General Bureau, Asahi Newspaper
Michael Green, * Director of Asian Affairs for Japan, U.S. National Security Council
Steven Clemons (commentator), Executive Vice President, New America Foundation

* Note: The comments of Michael Green were off the record, and are thus omitted from this report.

As the war on terrorism continues to intensify, many countries around the world are debating what their contribution should be. One of these is Japan. During the Gulf War, Japan was accused of foot-dragging and many criticized its final contribution of $13 billion as "too little, too late." U.S.-Japan relations deteriorated to the extent that Ambassador Michael Armacost wrote, "the alliance could not sustain a repetition of the Gulf War experience."**

What will be Japan's role this time around, as the United States rallies another coalition for military action in the Middle East? This question was tackled at an October 16 seminar sponsored by the Asia Program. In general, the panelists agreed that the situation has fundamentally changed since the days of the Gulf War, that Armacost's feared scenario looks unlikely. U.S.-Japan relations show strong signs of improving, not souring, as Japan gears up for the first deployment of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) during active hostilities since World War II.

The extent to which things have changed was explained by Professor Tomohito Shinoda of the International University of Japan. During the Gulf War, prime minister Kaifu exhibited weak leadership, complaining that there was no textbook available on how to handle a crisis. By contrast, Japan's new prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, is a determined and decisive leader. In response to the events of September 11, he promptly called a meeting of the Japanese National Security Council and announced a seven-point plan to support Washington's efforts. Also in contrast to Kaifu, Koizumi is surrounded by a staff of competent and knowledgeable advisers. Two bills that would allow the SDF to: 1) defend U.S. bases at home and 2) provide rear-area support as far away as the India Ocean, look likely to pass through the Diet.

Shinoda pointed out that Koizumi's decisiveness is not the only reason for Japan's timely response. Japan has been steadily improving its crisis management over many years, spurred by such disasters as the Hanshin earthquake and the sarin-gas subway attack. Government institutions have been streamlined and reformed so that task forces can be quickly assembled. New laws, such as the 1999 Regional Crisis Law, have expanded the SDF's role so that Koizumi's objectives are not as big a leap for Japan as they might otherwise have been. Moreover, public attitudes have shifted to favor strong leadership over more traditional discussion and consultation. Professor Shinoda's complete paper on this topic is available here.

Toshiaki Miura, Washington political correspondent for the Asahi newspaper, agreed that Koizumi's government is much more decisive than past Japanese administrations. But he pointed out that the Japanese public is more ambivalent than many Americans realize. For many Japanese, wide-scale terrorism is an American problem rather than a common threat to civilized society—and at least partly attributable to U.S. blunders in the Middle East. Moreover, pacifism in Japan is still strong. The Japanese know that peace depends on international cooperation, but deep down they are not ready to resort to the use of military force or to tolerate casualties.

Miura lamented the Japanese tendency to see the fight against terrorism through the narrow prism of Japan-U.S. relations. Because of this limited focus, Japan still tends to act only when American pressure is applied. For example, when Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage remarked that Japan should "show the flag," there was intense and endless discussion among the Japanese over how to interpret his words. "In effect, the United States wants Japan to be independent, but they have to TELL Japan to be independent," Miura complained. Moreover, the Japanese are overwhelmingly focused on the military aspects of what is in fact a multi-faceted conflict.

"Prewar Japan witnessed too much nationalism, which was not a healthy thing, but postwar Japan has seen too little," Miura went on to say. Why have liberal Japanese left the discussion of national identity "in the hands of a small portion of conservatives and right-wingers"? Japan must develop a new kind of nationalism that will lead to a healthy discussion of its role in the world.

Commentator Steven Clemons, executive vice president of the New America Foundation, agreed with much of the discussion. However, he pointed out that Japan deserves more credit than it receives for actions taken during the Gulf War. For example, documents offering support to the United States were classified at the time, and unknown to those who criticized the Japanese government so harshly. Like Miura, Clemons lamented the central role of gai-atsu in U.S.-Japan relations: a Japan that can coolly work through its own decisions will ultimately be a more trustworthy ally than one that constantly caves in to outside pressure. Americans are slow to realize this, Clemons suggested. For example, the "Armitage Report," drawn up by U.S. officials and Japan experts, values increasing Japanese security capacity only insofar as it would carry out American interests.

In spite of the tensions inherent in any expansion of Japanese defense capabilities, none of the panelists expressed pessimism about the latest efforts of the Koizumi administration (although Clemons expressed some reservations that Koizumi habitually offers more than he delivers). Each speaker suggested "so far, so good," and expressed hope that Japan will persevere to further expand its role within the international community.

**Michael Armacost, Friends or Rivals: The Insider's Account of U.S.-Japan Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996) 248.

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