Koizumi Coming under Pressure over Iraq Policy
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
As global tensions over the Iraq crisis reach a critical mass, the conflict has established itself as the most important focal point in geo-politics since the Cuban Missile Crisis. For Japan, the crisis has also become a turning point in the way it conducts its international diplomacy. For the first time since the end of WWII, Japanese politicians are taking a definite policy stance on a contentious international issue. This is a radical departure from the meticulously neutral position that the nation customarily adopts, especially on Middle Eastern issues. In a clear break with the past, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has boldly declared his support for the United States and Britain. He backs their latest United Nations initiative which proposes giving Iraq a short deadline to comprehensively disarm. However, Koizumi's position is at odds with the dominant Japanese mood and ordinary citizens are showing increasing signs of discontent with the new more assertive foreign policy approach.
Koizumi is attempting to steer a political path that will allow him to deliver on his pledge of resolute Japanese support for the United States. However, as the prospect of military action grows ever closer, his Iraq policy is beginning to come under fierce media scrutiny. This is seriously eroding the Prime Minister's personal authority which has largely relied on his popularity.
Until recently, the national press has been presenting a relatively even-handed line on the Iraq crisis. This has been in sharp contrast to a lot of television coverage that has taken a highly critical approach. Alarmingly for Koizumi, since the beginning of March some of the sentiment expressed in popular TV talk-shows has begun to creep into mainstream newsprint. Last week, the Mainichi Newspaper openly questioned the legitimacy of the government's position which it says clearly does not reflect the wishes of the people as recorded in opinion polls. The latest Mainichi survey showed 84% of people are against a military strike on Iraq. Seemingly reflecting this sentiment, well-attended anti-war demonstrations have recently broken out across the country.
A host of chat shows and current affairs programmes have been exploring a wide variety of conflict related topics. The typical talk-show has feautured celebrities expressing various degrees of doubt about the prospect of an imminent war, while some housewife-oriented shows have been focusing on the number of children who are likely to be killed in the conflict and its aftermath. More serious programming has been looking at the possible economic impact of a Middle East war on Japan. A few programmes have even examined philosophical issues like how President Bush's Christian concept of evil can be understood and interpreted in a Japanese context. Late-night TV discussions shows with phone-in and e-mail polls have been registering tremendous anti-war sentiment. The combined effect of this television onslaught has been to strengthen the pre-existent anti-war sentiment. This is making life extremely difficult for Koizumi whose popularity rating has been steadily sliding.
To compound Koizumi's troubles, the Japanese stock market recently hit a twenty-year low and there seems very little prospective of an economic recovery arriving anytime soon. The main opposition party is doing its best to take advantage of Koizumi's woes by adopting an aggressive anti-war stance. Its newly-elected leader, Naoto Kan, has been extremely effective on this front, compounding the premier's problems. If this was not bad enough, a recent series of high-level political scandals has tarnished the governing Liberal Democratic Party, further weakening Koizumi's already exposed position. Even more threatening, rivals within Koizumi's own party are trying to further undermine him by taking an anti-war stance.
Just like Britain's Tony Blair, Koizumi is now facing an unprecedented media assault for supporting the pre-emptive strike policy of President Bush. Koizumi has adopted the same justification as Blair for ignoring the views of the electorate. This was summed up recently when Koizumi was quoted as saying, "There are some occasions in politics when following what opinion polls say can be a mistake. History proves this to be true."
The Prime Minister seems determined to stay on course and should be able to deliver on his promises of support for President Bush. However, just like Britain's Tony Blair, Koizumi may find that while he gains the gratitude of the Americans, he may not be able to survive the long-term domestic backlash. American military mighty will almost certainly remove Saddam Hussein from power, but it may also eventually lead to the downfall of the Japanese Prime Minister.
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