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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (February 26, 2003)

Japan's Iraq Policy: It's North Korea Stupid

J. Sean Curtin (Japanese Red Cross University)

After months of walking a delicate tightrope of neutrality on the Iraq crisis, Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, has finally taken a firm policy position in favour of the United States. Even though polls show that the overwhelming majority of Japanese are against an American-led attack on Iraq, Koizumi is exhibiting a surprising air of confidence as he embarks on his greatest political gamble. Backing a war against Iraq would seem to go against the tenets of Koizumi's popularist inclinations, but his current strategy is based around a careful set of calculations in a high stakes game of international policy-poker. In essence, the Prime Minister is risking his political future on the assumption that his weak hand on Iraq can be successfully trumped by a winning policy ace on North Korea.

While ordinary Japanese are definitely concerned about a looming attack on distant Iraq, it is nearby North Korea that dominates national discourse. From the sales assistant to the company president, it is the threat of an unstable and nuclear North Korea that deeply troubles most ordinary Japanese. Herein likes the heart of Koizumi's survival strategy. Koizumi has calculated the national mood is such that he can successfully implement a highly unpopular Iraq policy by eventually trading it off against the more pressing North Korean issue. While he knows that about 80% of Japanese are against a war with Iraq, he also knows that nearly 100% are frightened by the recent bellicose statements coming out of North Korea. Any kind of policy resolution on the Korean crisis will require the assistance and active support of the United States. Koizumi will argue that Japan has no alternative but to fully support America on Iraq, if it expects help with solving the North Korean issue.

While the Japanese public might find this trade off rather distasteful, it has the merit of being an understandable and salable policy to people genuinely worried about Pyongyang's intentions. This situation means that unlike many of his lackluster predecessors, Koizumi should be able to deliver Washington vital support when it is needed as well as displaying some decisive leadership on the world stage.

While still trying to sustain the illusion of an evenhanded policy approach on Iraq, Koizumi has now resolutely nailed his colours to the U.S. banner. Japan demonstrated its clear support for the U.S. position at the open debate of the United Nations Security Council on 18 February. In the session, Japan acted as a key standard bearer for the United States. During the proceedings, it was only Japan and Australia who declared resolute support for the position of the U.S. and Britain. The vast majority of other countries backed an alternative approach which emphasized a peaceful resolution to the crisis and delaying the use of force.

Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Taku Yamasaki has also suggested that Japan must support Washington, even without a new resolution. He said Iraq will "not accept inspections the moment it hears there will be no use of force." This strongly indicates that Japan would support an American offensive without a second U.N. resolution backing the use of force. Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda have attempted to conceal the new policy by stating that because discussion is still ongoing, it is too early to actually clarify the precise Japanese position on Iraq. Koizumi has also joined in by denying that Japan would automatically support a unilateral attack on Iraq. However, Japan's actions at the Security Council make its real intentions absolutely clear.

The clarification of Japan's policy at the U.N. debate brought a torrent of fierce criticism from all corners of the political spectrum, especially from Koizumi's rivals and enemies within his own party. The media has been inundated with the harsh comments of prominent LDP politicians unhappy with Koizumi's stance.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has sensed the potential to make some good political capital and has adopted an aggressive anti-war stance. DPJ leader Naoto Kan accused the government of "acting contrary to the wishes of most of the Japanese people." While their policy affairs chief Yukio Edano described Koizumi as "double-tongued" for announcing Japan's position at the U.N. while refusing to do so in the Diet. Many elements of the media have also adopted a skeptical and angry tone.

Yet, in the middle of this vicious onslaught, Koizumi remains calm. In the past he has demonstrated that he is a supreme master at judging the public mood and this time he must be banking on his instincts being right.

Of course, poker on this scale is still a game of chance and nobody knows what the end result will be until all the cards are on the table. Nevertheless, as Koizumi plays out the greatest poker-hand of his political life, he must feel that the odds are on his side.

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