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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #144: October 29, 2004

The Dangers of Japan's Modernization Discourse in Iraq

John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)

With Japanese citizen Shosei Koda's life on the line and evidence that there has been an excess of 100,000 civilian Iraqi deaths since the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Japanese government will no doubt step up on-going efforts to distinguish its troop presence in Iraq from the US occupation.

Mr. Koda's kidnappers have demanded that Japan withdraw all of its troops from Iraq immediately in exchange for the hostage's life. Thus far, the Koizumi administration has refused to yield to this demand, however, he has also failed to clarify whether the SDF term, which expires in a month, will be renewed. Meanwhile, a study undertaken by Les Roberts of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and published in The Lancet Medical Journal reports that over 100,000 civilians may have been killed as a result of the war. What has been portrayed as a "war of liberation" and labeled "operation freedom" is increasingly being recognized as the cause of tyranny and suffering.

The Japanese government has justified its involvement in the "coalition" as an agent for "reconstruction." Even before Japan dispatched its forces to Samawah in southwestern Iraq, its government was careful to insist that its troops were part of a "civilizing" mission that would bring prosperity, stability and hope to Iraqis.

As a critical component of Japan's attempt to promote good will and establish a positive image in Iraq, the Japanese government has put a significant amount of effort and money into supporting cultural projects in war-torn Iraq, which include museum restoration, support for educational and sports activities. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) even established a Department of Public Diplomacy equipped with a $400 million budget with the explicit purpose of "establishing a good public image", according to the MOFA website. The belief, as stated by the department director Mr. Seiichi Kondo, is that a good public image will correlate into the safety of its citizens. In an article published by the Asahi newspaper on August 24, 2004, Mr. Kondo highlighted the release of three Japanese hostages in April as a triumph of this policy. We hope that this will be the case this time around as well.

Japanese governmental representatives are emphasizing that Japan's contribution to Iraq are being recognized and in his Seiron article of May 18, 2004, Mr. Kondo stated that "there is a reason why Japanese cooperation is reaching the hearts of Iraqis, it is because there is something [in our culture] that does not exist in the West." The article went on to specify that he was referring to the spiritual value system embodied in Japan's traditional culture, specifically Budo, which teaches principles of respect, patience and is designed to build mental strength. He notes that these ideas are being disseminated in Iraq through projects that promote Japanese sports such as Judo and Karate and through the broadcasting of Japanese television programs, subtitled in Arabic, such as Oshin and Project X, which depict the lives of ordinary Japanese people as they triumphed over poverty, war and occupation.

In Iraq, the Japanese government is trying to position itself as representative of a model for modernization without Westernization. The main narrative put forth by Japanese officials is that their country managed to develop in a way that harmonized modernization with tradition. The story claims that by discarding only the anachronistic institutions that hindered development, Japan was able to modernize without compromising its independence and its identity as an "Eastern" country. If we were to extend this argument one step further it would be to characterize Japan as best suited to teach, guide and reform Iraq.

The Japanese government needs to be cautious when utilizing this rhetoric, however. Establishing Japan as an ideal for non-Western modes of development is dangerously reminiscent of the discourse intellectuals adopted at the turn of the 20th century, which was eventually mobilized for the purposes of imperialism and total war. In the 1920s and 1930s, academics associated with Japan's Toyo Kenkyu (Oriental Studies) spoke of Japan's ability to synthesize both Eastern and Western cultures and establish a more integrative world culture. What actually transpired, however, was the casting of problems associated with Western culture in terms opposite to Japanese qualities of cohesion, cooperation and loyalty to the state. Ultimately, two competing cultural systems were created, authorizing Japan as the preeminent culture in the East and justifying its colonization of many in Asia.

By taking an unprecedented step of sending Japanese armed forces without UN sanction outside of its territory for the first time since the end of World War II, Prime Minister Koizumi and the architects of Japan's troop dispatch to Iraq are consciously trying to give Japanese a new sense of themselves and their relationship with the world. In addition to serving as a antidote for being identified with the American occupation, Japan's modernization discourse on Iraq could be interpreted as the construction of a "mission" for Japan similar to that proposed by Okakura Tenshin in his 1905 book The Ideals of the East, which called for Japan assisting in the reconstruction of Asia. Although, it is clear that Japan has no intention of establishing a colonizing presence in Iraq or the Middle East, Okakura Tenshin, a close friend of the Indian Nobel Laureate and independence leader Rabindranath Tagore, only sought to use Japan as a source of inspiration for Asia in order to guide it towards the ideal of Asian unity. However, generations later, this same discourse was manipulated to justify military aggression and occupation.

Seiichi Kondo's article in the Yomiuri on May 18, 2004, started with a statement made by the President of Afghanistan's Kabul University who indicated that, "Japan is today's only hope." While Japan can do much help promote peace and hope in the world, its officials need to be careful about positioning their country as the leader in Asia and as the depository of spiritual values and aesthetic qualities for this age. If this modernization discourse continues, without results, to be used as a justification for Japan's presence in Iraq and its cooperation with the US occupation, there is a distinct possibility that the Iraqis will come to recognize it as a structure of power that is compatible with occupation policies.

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