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Commentary (May 6, 2004)

Japan to Polish its Tarnished Middle East Image

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

As part of a determined effort to reform its tarnished image in the Arab world, the Japanese government has announced a bold set of Middle East initiatives on Iraq and the Israel-Palestine conflict. The latest move is part of an ongoing strategy designed to distinguish Japanese Middle East policy clearly from that of the United States, a move likely to irritate Washington.

Tokyo has officially stated that at the June summit of the Group of Eight (G8) countries in Sea Islands, Georgia, it will urge a resumption of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as well as a return to the internationally backed "roadmap" peace plan, which envisages the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. Japan also will try to give Iraq's reconstruction efforts a major boost by using its clout to improve international cooperation. Tokyo is hoping that these actions, combined with its robust condemnation of Israel's recent assassinations of two Hamas leaders, Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantissi, will help it restore its once-glittering image in the Middle East.

For decades Japan has invested heavily in crafting a positive image for itself in the Middle East, an area that is crucial to the supply of its energy needs. However, since actively supporting US President George W Bush's war in Iraq, Japan's reputation in the Arab world has suffered. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's staunch support for the war was also unpopular domestically, as well as deeply divisive. In an attempt to counteract some of the negative impact of his Iraq policy, Koizumi has decided to demonstrate that his country's Middle East policy is radically different from Washington's approach.

Troop dispatch damages Japan's image
Since dispatching about 550 ground troops to Iraq on a humanitarian mission, Japan has been subject to a barrage of criticism in the Arab media. Despite Japan's small commitment of armed forces, some radical elements in Iraq have attempted to lump the country in the same league as the United States and the United Kingdom. This development has alarmed many Japanese, especially after hearing the testimony of released South Korean hostages, who described how their Iraqi captors repeatedly chanted, "Kill the Americans, British and Japanese!"

John de Boer, a Japan-studies fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies, said, "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."

Dr Mamdouh Salameh, whose highly influential report, "Oil and Gas Development in Iran and Its Implications for Japan", was adopted as the basis for Japan's oil policy in Iran, concurs with de Boer's assessment. He told Asia Times Online, "The people of the Middle East are very disappointed by Japan's decision to send troops to Iraq, even in a humanitarian capacity. The reason is that these people are overwhelmingly against the US invasion of Iraq. They view Japan's decision as abetting the US occupation of an Arab country against the wishes of the Iraqi people. This has, to some extent, tarnished Japan's good image in the Middle East." However, Salameh added, "Japan is still highly respected in the Middle East as an economic superpower."

Dr Buthaina Shaaban, a Syrian cabinet minister and Foreign Ministry spokesperson, has a less negative assessment about the effects of Japan's troop deployment. She echoes a view often heard in the Arab world that Washington basically forced Japan to dispatch troops to Iraq. She told Asia Times Online, "I think the people of the Middle East are very politically savvy, and they understand that probably Japan has been subjected to pressure. So people will forgive Japan for that. People understand the nuances in the balance of power. So I hope this will not damage or change our relations with Japan."

Mixed reaction to Japanese troops
But not everyone's opinion is as accommodating as Shaaban's. Even though Japan has gone to great lengths to explain to the Arab world that its mission in Iraq is purely humanitarian and not at all military, the message has failed to register with some people, who have adopted a decidedly aggressive stance toward Tokyo.

Mohammad, who did not wish to disclose his family name, is a young engineering student from the Lebanese city of Byblos. With passion in his voice, he said, "Japan is helping the Americans to steal the oil of Iraq. This means some Iraqi people will want to harm them to remind the Japanese people that to steal is a great sin, and it is dangerous to help the Americans with their crimes." While this is just a minority opinion, Mohammad's views are nevertheless disturbing.

Tokyo is doing its utmost to rectify the negative impressions generated by its support for Washington's Iraq policy. In other Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, where Japan has an especially strong economic presence, its image has remained largely favorable despite the troop dispatch. 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. This move largely has kept the Iranians on Tokyo's side.

"On the whole, the Iranians still feel very positively about Japan, though I suspect they know nothing of its history," said Dr Ali Ansari, a lecturer in Middle East history at the University of Exeter. "Essentially, they view Japan as a non-Western success story even though this is, strictly speaking, not true, but they are also fond of the Japanese sensitivity to culture. All these things play well with Iranians, many of whom work in Japan, or used to, and send the money back home."

Palestinian issue divides Washington and Tokyo
To distance itself from Washington further, Tokyo has recently highlighted its different approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. "Today, the United States and Japan continue to stand apart on the Palestinian issue, and this divide was made strikingly clear after President Bush overturned a long-standing US policy that condemned all settlements and upheld, in principle, the Palestinian right of return," de Boer said. "All cabinet members in Japan agree that Bush's 'unilateral' moves are an obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Japanese newspaper editorials have been even more vocal in denouncing US endorsement of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's policy."

Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon and a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, rejects criticisms like de Boer's, believing that Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan will be a positive step for the Middle East. He also totally rejects the idea commonly advanced in the Japanese media that Israeli and US policy are the main causes of instability in the Middle East. Taking a completely opposite view from Tokyo, he believes the Arab world itself is almost entirely to blame for its current problems, and Israel is just being used as a scapegoat.

Shoval told Asia Times Online: "The Arab peoples today are behind the rest of the world in most spheres. Why? Is this because of Israel? Or because of the occupation? Or because of settlements? Or because of imperialism? No, it's self-inflicted. Can they change it? Hopefully, yes." His remarks are strikingly similar to views expressed by some senior members of the Bush administration.

While Tokyo may have substantial differences with Washington on its wider Middle East policy, Koizumi has reaffirmed his pledge to keep Japanese troops in Iraq. At the moment, this is largely a symbolic gesture, as the upsurge in violence has confined them to their isolated high-tech fortress outside the southern Iraqi city of Samawah. On Thursday two artillery shells were fired in the direction of the camp, forcing Japanese troops to evacuate to their bunkers for several hours. Even so, it seems almost certain Japan will keep its troops in Iraq. The Japan Defense Agency has already issued orders to rotate more than 400 of its personnel at the end of May.

Despite its solid display of support for Washington in Iraq, Tokyo is likely to increase its attempts to counterbalance this support by pursuing a more independent, pro-Arab foreign policy with the aim of reclaiming its former positive regional image. This situation could eventually lead to a serious rift in US-Japan relations as the Bush administration pursues its staunch pro-Israel foreign policy.

"Japanese officials, intellectuals, journalists and civil society recognize that Bush is bringing more chaos to the Middle East than clarity," de Boer said. "The differences between Japan's approach to the Middle East from that of the United States is more evident than ever before, with the exception of Iraq."

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 4 May 2004,, and is republished with permission.)

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