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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (December 2, 2003)

Japan's Iraq Dead Spell Trouble for Koizumi

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

In an extraordinary bloody 24-hour period, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Colombia and the United States have all suffered fatalities in the increasingly deadly arena of Iraq. For Japan, these are the country's first losses in the conflict and the deaths have refocused Japanese public opinion on the country's foreign policy. For Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the spilling of Japanese blood will seriously limit his ability to dispatch Japanese troops to the region and may damage relations with Washington.

Two Japanese diplomats and their Iraqi driver have become part of the latest gruesome casualty figures. The three were killed by gunmen in an ambush on their vehicle near the city of Tikrit. According to initial news reports, the two had stopped to purchase drinks when their car came under fire. The timing of the tragedy could not come at a worse juncture for Koizumi who is fighting an uphill battle to send troops to Iraq.

Since his re-election in early November, Koizumi has repeatedly stated his resolve to dispatch troops to Iraq, but on every occasion his plans have been thwarted by a rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground. During November provisional figures show that a staggering 104 coalition troops were killed in Iraq, comprising 79 American soldiers and 25 allied troops. This awful tally makes it the deadliest month since the war began in mid-March. Besides the almost daily death-toll of two or three soldiers, November has also witnessed some large scale attacks including a suicide bombing that killed 19 Italian troops and a lethal ambush that murdered 7 Spanish intelligence officers. Against this bloody backdrop, making a firm decision on the dispatch of Japanese troops has been almost impossible.

Koizumi's position was already weakened by a worse than expected election result which saw his own Liberal Democratic Party lose seats while its more dovish coalition partner, New Komeito, increased its strength. Further complicating the picture was the dramatic gains made by the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan which has become the most menacing opposition force any LDP prime minister has ever faced. The shifting political landscape combined with the ever mounting death-toll have put Koizumi's planned troop deployment under immense strain. The prime minister is desperate to demonstrate to President Bush that Japan is willing to commit troops to Iraq, but embarrassingly he has so far been unable to deliver on his promise.

Although the Japanese parliament has already approved the deployment of Japanese forces, this can only be done on the condition that they serve in what are designated "non-combat areas." As all the opposition parties have forcefully pointed out, presently there is no such thing as a "non-combat area" in Iraq. This is Koizumi's Achilles heal and the policy area he has been totally unable to explain in parliament. After the tragic killing of the diplomats, a grim-face Koizumi told the nation, "There is no change in our policy of not giving into terrorism." His comments echoed those made a few hours earlier by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Just before Japan's first fatalities, Spain had lost seven soldiers in an ambush near the Iraqi town of Hilla. Despite their defiant stands, both prime ministers face overwhelming domestic opposition towards their pro-Bush Iraq policy.

Koizumi has consistently demonstrated his determination to implement the plan for sending troops to Iraq. However, the past month has clearly indicated that policy is no longer under his control and it is events on the ground in Iraq that now dictate the limits of his authority on the matter. If American-led forces cannot rapidly stabilize conditions in Iraq, it will be almost impossible for Japan to dispatch troops. In other words, the final decision on Japanese troop deployments will be determined on the unpredictable battlefields of Iraq. This unsatisfactory state of affairs has real potential to create serious political fallout in both Tokyo and Washington.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. A different version of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 1 December 2003,, and is republished with permission.)

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