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Comment (May 26, 2004)

Comments on "Japan to Polish its Tarnished Middle East Image"

Michael Penn (Foreign Instructor, Department of Policy Studies, Faculty of Law at Kitakyushu University)

As someone who has studied Japan's relations with Islamic West Asia since several years before September 11 and the Iraq War, I'd like to react to some of the points made in the Asia Times article "Japan to Polish its Tarnished Middle East Image" of J. Sean Curtin.

First of all, I agree with one of the main contentions of the article---Japan's participation in the Iraq War has damaged, and continues to damage, Japanese-Muslim relations. One need only read the letters sent by Saraya al-Mujahidin (the group that took the Japanese hostages) to perceive this fact very clearly:

"We, Muslims and the sons of the Iraqi people, have feelings of friendship and respect for the Japanese people. However, most regrettably, you have denied our friendship and our sincerity and returned it with bad faith. You have supported and given supplies to the unbelieving American army, which has launched an aggression against our holy places, and you have assisted them in this dirty act. Our blood has flown and our children have been killed. Therefore, it is our duty to return these acts in kind. We thus do not welcome you and your friendship. Because of this position you have taken, we now declare war against you..." (Letter of April 8, 2004)

Some will argue, no doubt, that Saraya al-Mujahidin was just a tiny group of radicals that don't represent a majority of Arab public opinion. It is true that they are probably a small group of local tribesmen around Falluja. Nevertheless, I believe the general sentiment they expressed so clearly has a much wider traction among Muslims than just this tiny group, even if only a very small minority would actually act upon it. On this point I agree with Curtin's analysis.

It may be true that some senior Japanese officials, stunned by the near-disaster of the hostage crisis, are now beginning to give some thought to Muslim public opinion. However, Curtin's assertion that this represents a "radically different" approach from that of Washington's is quite overdrawn and misleading.

I'm quite sure that PM Koizumi is privately growing quite uncomfortable with the American policy in Iraq. However, his political room for maneuver on this issue is now quite constrained. Japan actively lobbied other countries the support the US during the run-up to the war. When President Bush actually launched the war without UN authority, Koizumi announced on March 19, 2003, that he "understands and supports" the Anglo-American attack. This effectively shredded the illusion of Japan having a "UN-Centrism" (kokuren chushinshugi) at the heart of its foreign policy. In response, Bush praised Koizumi's "courage and friendship." In this and many other ways, Koizumi has tied himself clearly to the US policy in Iraq, and Japan's policy is not going to substantially change so long as Koizumi remains Prime Minister.

Curtin misreads what happened in regard to Iran's Azadegan oil field in Iran. He writes: "In February, and against the express wishes of the Bush administration, a Japanese consortium signed a massive US$2 billion (215 billion yen) deal with Tehran to develop the huge Azadegan oilfield."

Clearly, this is meant by Curtin to demonstrate Japan's policy independence in regard to the US. Apparently, he overlooked the March 30, 2004, comments of Representative Brad Sherman at the House of Representatives International Relations Committee: "An administration desperate for re-election will take 550 soldiers from Japan, which provide the veneer of international support and credibility for our relations in Iraq, which is the preoccupation of the electorate, and give the green light to $2.8 billion going from Japan to Iran." If Congressman Sherman is correctly informed, the US leadership gave the "green light" to Tokyo as a reward for its support in Iraq. This does not square with Curtin's reading of the issue.

John de Boer's comments also deserve some scrutiny: "If there is any region towards which Japan has consistently taken an independent policy stand from the United States, it is in the Middle East. Japan's willingness to join the US-led occupation in Iraq has been a departure from this long-standing tradition and could end up eroding the political capital and goodwill that Japanese have spent decades trying to cultivate in the Middle East."

The second sentence is substantially correct, but the first is quite overdrawn. It is true that after the 1973 oil embargo Japan began to take serious cognizance of their relations with Islamic West Asia in a way they had failed to do from 1945-1973, when they relied almost exclusively on the US to secure their interests in that region. However, to describe Japan's policy as "consistently independent" in the period between 1973-2001 is well beyond the realms of reality. Yes, it is true that on issues like the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Iran policy, Japan's policy was faintly distinguishable from American policy, but this "independence" was almost always very cautious and tentative. By the late 1980s and the Nakasone era, Japan was already moving away from its cautious "pro-Arab" policies.

In any case, the dominant faction within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was always skeptical of any policy that might cause a backlash from US authorities---and that has always been Gaimusho's main concern since 1945. And after Japan's bumbling performance during the Persian Gulf War, the hand of the pro-American conservatives was strengthened decisively.

If you don't accept my testimony, then consider that of Yukio Okamoto, until recently Koizumi's Special Advisor on Iraq Policy, and a former Gaimusho man himself. This was written in the Spring 2002 issue of The Washington Quarterly: "For Japan, the United States is the country's only ally. Japan concentrates all its attention on smoothing its relations with the United States, routinely making difficult political decisions to keep the alliance on an even keel." The very title of the article says it all: "Japan and the United States: The Essential Alliance."

Okamoto also criticized Japan's traditional soft-power policy in a later article in the following terms: "Japan's usual line, 'our hands are clean, so we are the best suited to act as peace mediator,' does not win sympathy in the international community. If our hands are clean, that is because we have not lifted a finger to help in concrete ways. The person who watches from the bench and then sides with the winning team does not make many friends. This time, Japan has manifestly placed itself in the camp that uses military power for the defense of freedom and justice. That is why Japan now has the right to make demands of the international community, in particular, the United States. This is a position of strength that Japan should exploit to develop its own vision of international aid."

None of this squares with Curtin and de Boer's notion that Japan has now decided to follow an independent line in the region "radically different" from what the Bush Administration desires. At best, we're talking here about some kind of "Good Cop-Bad Cop" scheme.

More likely, though, the recent hints (that Curtin rightly takes note of) are Japan's way of manifesting its growing unease about the direction things are taking in Islamic countries. Japanese political leaders are dimly beginning to perceive that unconditional support of everything the US decides to do is not a magic potion that makes all international problems go away. Like those mythical old generals, Japan's political class has been fighting the last war---the Persian Gulf War---rather than perceiving the true implications of the current war.

Koizumi, Okamoto, and their many ideological blood brothers have lost sight of the fact that most of Japan's power relies on soft power, and as a result they've been burning up the real sources of their influence in Islamic West Asia almost (but not quite) as fast as the US and Britain. Belatedly, Japan's political class may be figuring this out. A few more incidents like the recent hostage crisis may soon bring the message home to them in a more concrete way.

They have no excuse. Independent experts on the Islamic world have been howling for years, but rather than listen to their wisdom, the Powers That Be have decided to simply question their loyalty. That's true here in Japan, and its true back home in the States as well. Now you see what you get---a first-class debacle.

Rejoinder to Comments on "Japan to Polish its Tarnished Middle East Image"

The above comments originally appeared on 6 May 2004 in H-Japan and are reproduced here with the author's permission.

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