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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (December 25, 2003)

Courageous decision on Iraq

Hugh Cortazzi (Former British Ambassador to Japan)

The Japanese government's decision to send members of the Self-Defense Forces to take part in humanitarian efforts in Iraq was a courageous one.

Japanese public opinion, like that in other developed countries, has been generally opposed to the war in Iraq, which was ostensibly waged because Iraq was thought to hold weapons of mass destruction. This opposition was reinforced for many people by the failure of coalition forces to find any such weapons.

The final capture of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a relief for the Iraqi people and the coalition forces, but it is unlikely to make the occupation more palatable to the Iraqi people. Terrorists will not give up just because one obnoxious leader has been caught without a fight.

After the assassination of two Japanese diplomats and the attacks on the United Nations Headquarters in Iraq and on relief organizations -- including the Red Cross -- it is clear that the Japanese sent to Iraq, whatever their role there, are likely to be regarded by Iraqi insurgents as targets for terrorist attacks. There could well be Japanese casualties in Iraq unless stringent precautions are taken and effective armor used.

It is to be hoped that the Japanese SDF members sent to Iraq will be given appropriate rules of engagement enabling them to defend themselves effectively against attack. To draw up such rules without seeming to infringe the terms of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution will not be easy, but the article has been interpreted increasingly flexibly in recent years and can no doubt be stretched to cover the sort of difficulties that Japanese forces may encounter in Iraq.

Some observers argue that the decision to send troops to Iraq in support of the coalition forces increases the likelihood of attacks on Japanese targets elsewhere. This is debatable. Japan, with its Westernized and materialist lifestyle, has inevitably been a potential target for Muslim extremists.

Japanese willingness in the past to give in to the perpetrators of hijackings and the apparent fears shown by Japanese reluctant to travel to trouble spots suggest that Japanese missions and enterprises overseas, as well as places where Japanese congregate abroad, could be regarded as soft targets. On the other hand, the willingness by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government to send forces to Iraq could and should be seen as a sign that Japanese attitudes are changing and becoming more determined.

The Japanese government decision was dictated, in part at least, by recognition of Japan's obligation to the United States on defense issues and by the importance of the national interest in retaining U.S. forces in the Far East, not least to deter a possible missile attack from North Korea.

Koizumi also realized that, having given a personal assurance to U.S. President George W. Bush that Japan would make real efforts to help in Iraq, he had to deliver, or join Bush's list of untrustworthy foreign politicians.

He will also have calculated that his decision should help Japanese companies to gain a share in the lucrative contracts for the rehabilitation of Iraq and may help to mute American opposition to Japanese contacts with Iran. Self-interest of this kind does not make the decision less courageous. Complete altruism is rarely observed in international affairs.

Koizumi no doubt also sees the decision as a step toward Japan becoming "a normal country" with a realistic defense policy and forces. The first steps were taken by support for U.N. peacekeeping operations, e.g., in Timor and Cambodia. Now Japan is going to provide "humanitarian" help to a coalition not endorsed by the United Nations.

Changes in Japanese defense policy are being made cautiously and incrementally. This is sensible, particularly in view of Chinese and South Korean sensitivities. Koizumi would be wise in these circumstances to refrain from gesture politics such as visiting Yasukuni Shrine in order to appease a few Liberal Democratic Party supporters. Their support for Koizumi in this matter is less important for Japan than Asian opinion is.

Koizumi and his supporters are already considering the possibility of changing the Constitution, which dates back to 1947, and in particular Article 9, but this requires favorable votes by two-thirds or more of all the members of each house in the Diet and endorsement by a majority of votes cast in a referendum.

More than a half-century since its passage after World War II, the Constitution is regarded by many in Japan as alien in content and imposed by a conquering power. It is also seen as guaranteeing that Japan will never again undertake foreign military adventures and as laying down the basic rights of Japanese citizens.

Once the question of constitutional revision is opened up, as it will be some day, there will be pressure for changes in other articles, including that defining the role of the Emperor. Even if a consensus could be obtained for a minor change to Article 9 explicitly allowing Japan to take part in mutual defense arrangements, it would be much more difficult to reach agreement on amendments to other clauses.

Japanese are, it is said, by nature pragmatists, and the Japanese language reflects this by its capacity for ambiguity. If so, why not just go on extending the flexible interpretation of the Constitution to enable the government to do what it wants to do? After all, the Japanese Supreme Court has shown that it is an innately conservative institution that is quite unlikely to demonstrate its independence by openly challenging the government.

Some would say that this is a major fault line in the Japanese Constitution and its application, although supreme courts in other countries are not exempt from political pressures. Members of supreme courts must be selected or elected, and it is not necessarily the case that elected judges are better or more independent than appointed ones.

The old Roman writer Juvenal asked "quis custodiet ipsos custodies?" or "who is to guard the guards themselves?" It is a question to which there may be no answer but one that we should never forget in a democracy.

(This article originally appeared in the December 22, 2003 issue of The Japan Times)

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