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In Japan, as in so many other countries, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had a profound impact on public policy. According to Yuka Uchida, 9/11 served as a catalyst for change in Tokyo’s foreign policies—and particularly those focused on the Middle East. On July 25, Uchida, a Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar, explored the evolution of Japan’s Middle East policies since 9/11 at a Wilson Center event co-sponsored with the Middle East Program. She argued that in the years after the attacks, Japan’s engagement with the region has become more high-visibility and less low-key.

In the decades preceding the 9/11 attacks, Uchida explained, Tokyo’s engagement was carried out in an under-the-radar fashion.  For example, the nation has been one of the world’s “most consistent and enduring supporters” of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. However, in the 1990s, if someone on the street in Japan had been asked about the nation’s role in this peace process, he or she would have been unable to offer an answer, even though at that time Tokyo had a peacekeeping presence in the Golan Heights. In 1991, Japan supported U.S. and coalition efforts in the Gulf War, though this contribution—a minesweeping fleet—was provided only after hostilities had ceased, and was regarded by Washington as “too little, too late.”

Generally speaking, Uchida asserted, before 9/11, Japan-Mideast ties were largely economic. Japan bought the region’s oil, while the Middle East purchased Japanese cars and a variety of other products. (Today, Japan remains heavily dependent on energy from the Middle East; nearly 90 percent of its oil is imported from the region.)

The situation changed dramatically after 9/11. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was one of the first world leaders to call U.S. President George W. Bush to offer assistance. Several months later, Japan authorized its Self-Defense Forces to help refuel American and British warships based in the Indian Ocean. Several years later, Koizumi supported the U.S. position in the run-up to the Iraq war, and pledged that Japan would do “whatever was necessary” (short of actual combat) to promote Iraq’s peaceful post-war reconstruction. Over the last decade, Japan has also ramped up its economic assistance to the Palestinian territories, expanded its relationship with Saudi Arabia (with recent agreements on new cultural exchanges, technical assistance, and investment), and made “enormous progress” in deepening its ties to Turkey (“delegation after delegation” of Japanese business leaders are flocking to Ankara).

In short, concluded Uchida, Japan “has come a long way” in its efforts to share the burden of promoting peace across the Middle East. She acknowledged, however, that the region is easily eclipsed by more pressing foreign policy concerns closer to home. Additionally, since 9/11, while the Middle East has been perceived with some level of increased interest by the general public, such sentiment has often been at odds with Tokyo’s policies. Many Japanese, she said, were hesitant to support government efforts to promote the activities of coalition forces in Iraq—especially when Self-Defense Forces were dispatched to the country. Ultimately, however, public opinion remains relatively uninterested in the Middle East, and is much more fixated on North Korea and other neighbors.