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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (August 7, 2003)

Self-Defense Force Dispatch Debate Curiously Quiet

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Managing Director, Foreign Press Center, Japan)

While people continue to be obsessed with the economic conditions and their own prospects, Japan is undergoing an amazing change in the crucial area of national security and military preparedness.

The Diet has passed legislation enabling the government to send Self-Defense Forces troops to lraq, where signs abound that the war is yet to end militarily and politically. Japanese troops are being sent to work in a country without its own government under occupation by foreign forces following a war of which legitimacy is dubious without the authorization of international law. Events unfolding in the U.S. and the U.K. only add to this dubiety.

Some people express pleasure that Japan is finally starting to acknowledge its right position in the world and a commensurate role to play. Some express anger at what they regard as Japan's military participation in the operation, however hard the government and ruling party leaders deny that. The troops are going to help lraq's reconstruction, they stress again and again.

Whichever the case, the fact that Japan is sending its troops to such a place under such international conditions is itself extraordinary, given the past mood and posture that prevailed in this country. What is noteworthy is that this is taking place without really serious debate among the public, though opposition forces in the Diet resisted the passage of the bill to send troops to the Middle East. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is not seen to have really convinced the nation.

When SDF troops were sent abroad for the first time - to Cambodia in a U.N.- sponsored peacekeeping operation - in 1993, Japan was deeply divided and agitated, looking like it was on the verge of participating in a war abroad. It was a moment of reckoning, a watershed in the postwar history of this country.

Once the wall was broken down, it took less and less to overcome psychological barriers to sending troops overseas on peacekeeping pretexts - to Rwanda, the Golan Heights in Syria and East Timor. In addition, Maritime Self-Defense Force warships were deployed to supply fuel to U.S navy vessels engaged in bombing of Afghanistan. Finally, the lraq engagement.

What would have been unthinkable a few decades or even years ago, is taking place without the nation stopping to give serious thought to it. The postwar "peace" constitution is becoming increasingly at odds with reality. Even the bilateral security treaty with the U.S. that stipulates that Japanese deployment of military forces, should it occur, must be limited within the "Far East," whose southernmost limit is the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, is failing to keep up with what's actually happening.

At the same time, it should be noted that there is underlying public irritation that the Japanese government is acquiescing to virtual U.S. demands to send troops to lraq simply to please the Americans. This is because they may ultimately have to rely on U.S. military strength if a hostile and belligerent North Korea attacks Japan. But even without North Korea, the government under Prime Minister Koizumi would go ahead with cooperation with the U.S. as long as the foreign policy and national security establishment believes that the cornerstone of Japan's security is the unshakable military alliance with Washington.

They fully knew, and approved of, if privately, that the U.S. under President George W. Bush was determined to go to war against Saddam Hussein regardless of whether the lraqis had weapons of mass destruction or not. Americans simply thought Saddam Hussein and his regime could not be tolerated.

Deep commitment

The fact that the Koizumi government unequivocally supported America in this war showed that this country has committed itself more deeply and irrevocably to an alliance with a U.S. criticized for its unilateralism, excessive reliance on military power and other now familiar reasons.

In a sense this is an inevitable consequence of the course Japan embarked on following its defeat and devastation by the U.S. in World War II. It inescapably came under the control and protection of the U.S. During the Cold War, which prompted the U.S. to rearm Japan, the U.S. tolerated the seemingly lopsided nature of the treaty's security commitment, with only the U.S. assuming an obligation to defend Japan. This country made up for the gap by purchasing U.S. military hardware and providing generous host-nation contributions for the maintenance of U.S. military bases in Japan.

In this era of terrorism and America's unilateral and self-righteous posture and power, which has replaced the Cold War regime, Japan's position in the world and vis-a-vis the U.S. have inevitably had to change or will be forced to in the future. But the Japanese establishment, the governing Liberal Democratic Party in particular, has never seriously considered altering the policy of adhering to the alliance with the U.S. That partly explains the strange absence of serious debate among the public about the decision to send troops to lraq.

A major problem that lies ahead for Japan is nationalism - the underlying pent-up urge for independence from the U.S. That was why Koizumi took such pains to stress that supporting the U.S. war against Saddam and sending troops to postwar lraq is an option Japan has taken on its own and for its own interests, and never mere to please the U.S.

The irony is that the closer Japan comes to cooperating with the U.S. militarily, the more important it becomes for the government, and for the Japanese themselves, to assert their independence from the U.S. Although the call for independence was heard primarily from the left in the past, rightist forces may be more vociferous in this regard in the future.

(This article first appeared in the August 4, 2003 issue of The Nikkei Weekly. Do not quote without permission of the author or the publisher)

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