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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (March 31, 2003)

Japan's First Test of Anti-war Sentiment

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

Although thousands of miles away from the vast deserts of ancient Mesopotamia, Japan finds itself engulfed in a destructive geo-political sandstorm coming straight out of Iraq. The Japanese economy is being ravaged by the uncertainty created in the run up to a war that the majority of its population opposes. With a volatile stock market languishing at twenty-year lows and nationwide local elections slated for April, Iraq-generated concerns have the potential to inflict serious damage on the ruling coalition. The outcome of these unified local elections will be a barometer for the national mood. A poor showing by the governing coalition will be a tremendous boost for the opposition parties and may lead to the downfall of the current administration. It is no exaggeration to say that the political fortunes of the current government depend on the unpredictable winds of war.

The Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, is one of the few world leaders to openly support the U.S.-led war on Iraq, endorsing President Bush's justification for attacking Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Japan recently reaffirmed its resolute support for Washington at the first United Nations Security Council meeting to be held after hostilities began. Japan has established itself as one of the most vocal American supporters on the world stage. The one drawback with current policy is that the majority of Japanese people are opposed to the war that their government is so vigorously supporting.

Opposition parties have sought to capitalize on deep rooted public anxieties about the war. They have adopted a strong anti-war platform, labelling Koizumi an American parrot. To try to deflect some of this criticism, Koizumi refused to follow an American request to expel Iraqi embassy diplomats after the war started. Nevertheless, a definite impression has been created that Koizumi is very much toeing the Washington line on the Iraq invasion and ignoring public opinion.

Two recent polls conducted just after the invasion commenced reveal the extent of public discontent. The most recent Asahi poll shows 59% against the war while a Mainichi survey registers 65% disapproving. With such clear cut opposition to war and important local elections on the horizon, one would think that the Prime Minister must feel his political instincts have failed him. However, since hostilities began, his position has actually improved with an increase in those supporting war. The previous Mainichi poll recorded a massive 84% of people against war with the earlier Asahi survey showing 79% against. Even so, there is still a huge gulf to bridge before Koizumi can claim to have public backing for his Iraq policy and this chasm may cost his party considerable losses at the ballot-box.

Mr. Koizumi has attempted to justify his unpopular war stance by emphasizing the threat posed by a bellicose North Korea and the fact that American assistance is a prerequisite for dealing with the unpredictable and nuclear-armed neighbour. Encouragingly for the PM, the most recent Mainichi poll shows people citing the main reason behind their increased support for the war is the belief that Japan would need U.S. military help to counter threats from North Korea.

North Korea is doing its best to help Koizumi out of his current political troubles. A recent escalation of brinkmanship by the Stalinist state has focused Japanese minds on the dangers it poses. In the past month alone, North Korea has launched two anti-ship missiles into the Sea of Japan, reactivated its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Most Japanese understand that without U.S. assistance, Japan cannot hope to resolve this dangerous issue. This explains why despite strong anti-war sentiment, 64% of respondents in a recent Yomiuri poll said that the Japanese government has no choice but to back U.S. military action in Iraq while just 12% believe it is actually the right thing to do. Not surprisingly, the same survey showed 92% of people were anxious about North Korean missile tests.

Nevertheless, selling the invasion of Iraq to the Japanese public on the basis of the North Korean threat is proving to be a more uphill struggle than the Prime Minister envisaged with time running out before the forthcoming local elections. While the current Koizumi strategy appears to be having some effect, unless North Korea further escalates tensions, it may not have enough momentum to save his party or his own administration from voter anger in the April elections.

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