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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #64: September 17, 2002

Real Motive Behind Japan's Hesitancy to Support Iraq Attack

John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 12 September, US President, George W. Bush's, made clear his desire for a Security Council resolution on Iraq within weeks. If the Council failed to pass a resolution, Bush reminded the world on 15 September that it should, "make no mistake about it, if we have to deal with the problem, we'll deal with it" (Reuters).

Condelezza Rice (National Security Advisor) and Vice President, Dick Cheney have been considerably forthcoming as to how they think "the problem" should be dealt with by stating that the only solution is a "regime change" and that any alternative to war was unrealistic. With two-thirds of US citizens supporting military action against Iraq if UN measures fail (CNN poll, 16 September), President Bush seems to be several steps closer to this objective. However, Bush has yet to convince the international community.

Japan has refused to openly endorse US war plans. Although the international press has reported on Japan's hesitancy to support the use of force against Iraq they have failed to understand the fundamental reason behind this position. This week's Media Review will provide a survey of how mainstream news services have portrayed Japan's stance on the question of Iraq and will then outline the true motive behind Japan's standoff policy.

It is clear that Japan would like to avoid war in Iraq. Prior to President Bush's address at the UNGA, Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, was quoted as stating that, "the world had to be convinced by the US that an attack on Iraq was merited before it could go ahead" (Reuters, 9 September). For this Koizumi insisted that "all other actions by the international community had to be exhausted" and that Iraq had to accept "immediate and unconditional inspections and dispose of all weapons of mass destruction" (Malcolm Foster, Associated Press, 13 September). Following Bush's speech Koizumi maintained this position insisting that, "the use of force is a last resort when there are no other options" (Priscilla Cheung, Associated Press, 13 September).

As an explanation for this stance, the Financial Times and Reuters cite Japan's constitutional constraints that forbid it from participating in any military conflict unless there was proof that Iraq sponsored Al Qaeda (Financial Times, 11 September and Reuters 9 September). Suvendrini Kakuchi of Interpress pointed to public opinion stating that 77 percent of Japanese polled recently opposed US military action against Iraq. Other news sources such as CNN and the Wall Street Journal pointed to economic and resource instability as Japan's main concern (CNN, 12 September and Wall Street Journal, 16 September).

While all of these elements do play a part in Japanese decision making, the fact of the matter is that they do not represent the primary motivation behind Japan's hesitancy to support the forceful removal of Saddam Hussein. Japan's dominant fear is that military action against Iraq and the overthrowing of Saddam will create an increasingly unstable situation in Iraq, the Middle East and Asia as a whole. Professor Masayuki Yamauchi of the University of Tokyo alluded to this fact in his statement to the Interpress news service when he stated that, "there is no proof that an invasion can establish democracy in the Middle East" (Interpress, 6 September). Unfortunately the matter goes further than the issue of democracy. Most governments, including Japan, are afraid of what will come if the US fails to install a government in Iraq that is capable of maintaining national unity and territorial integrity.

The disintegration of Iraq could bring forth several critical problems for the region and for the world. Firstly, the Kurdish population in northern Iraq has for almost a century been struggling for an independent Kurdistan. Saddam Hussein has denied them of this national aspiration by utilizing oppressive means including chemical warfare. Although, most would disagree with the means that Saddam has utilized, the sad truth is that many have agreed with the result. The reason being that the strengthening of an independence movement among the Kurds in northern Iraq could promote Kurdish self-determination in Turkey and lead to the break up of this key Western ally as well. Secondly, the disintegration of Iraq, which has the world's second largest proven oil reserves could send oil prices sky-rocketing and deprive Western states of the control over oil interests in Iraq that they are so desperately seeking. Thirdly, the "balkanization" of Iraq could force the US to utilize even more force causing considerable outrage and anti-American/Western sentiment in the Middle East and throughout Asia, potentially damaging Western and Japanese capitalist interests in the region. It was because of these fears that the international community, including the US, chose not to support the popular uprising in Iraq against Saddam Hussein shortly following the Gulf War in 1991 allowing Hussein to remain in power. Finally, an attack on Iraq could spark ethno-religious tensions in places such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan leading to the withdrawal of these key Western allies from the coalition in the "war against terror".

The Washington Post acknowledged these concerns when it stated in an editorial that, "while the US may be able to win a war against Iraq on its own, it is difficult to imagine how any project to remake Iraq after Saddam Hussein could succeed without major allied contributions of troops, funds and political goodwill".

Bush also recognizes that he needs help from the international community to overcome this problem and attempted to address doubts about US ability to install a regime in Iraq by claiming that democracy was making advances in Afghanistan and that peace has been restored. By insisting on the fallacy that democracy and stability existed in Afghanistan (speech to UNGA), Bush seems to believe that a similar alliance will succeed in establishing order and a friendly government in Iraq. However, my feeling is that, other countries, including Japan, think that this task will not be so easy and have chosen to insist on diplomacy until a viable alternative to Saddam exists.

I believe that the question of Japan's support for an attack against Iraq is not just about Japan's constitutional constraints, oil interests and public opinion. Rather, it primarily has to do with whether or not Japan agrees with the US assessment that a change in the regional order (Middle East) is necessary and possible at this point in time. Koizumi's statements seem to indicate that Japan thinks the timing is not yet ripe.


  • Kim Young-hie, "Anti-American feeling? Its normal says publisher Josef Joffe", International Herald Tribune, 10 September 2002.
  • "Japan PM Says Iraq Attack Needs to be Justified", Reuters, 9 September 2002.
  • Editorial, "A Dialogue on Iraq", The Washington Post, 6 September 2002.
  • Suvendrini Kakuchi, "Japan walks tightrope on US vs Iraq", Interpress, 6 September 2002.
  • "Asian 9/11 Demonstrators Say Avoid Iraq War", Reuters, 12 September 2002.
  • David Ibison, "Japan restricted in support for US", the Financial Times, 11 September 2002.
  • Geoff Hiscock, "Japan's economy 'most exposed' in Iraq war", CNN, 12 September 2002.
  • "Asian Markets Open Mixed on Tech, US-Iraq Concerns", Wall Street Journal, 16 September 2002.
  • Alistair Lyon, "Bush says pressure on Iraq, others have misgivings", Reuters, 15 September 2002.
  • Julia Preston, "Split in Iraq Emerges in the UN", the New York Times, 14 September 2002.
  • Malcolm Foster, "Koizumi urges Bush to use military force against Iraq only as last resort", the Associated Press, 13 September 2002.
  • Pricilla Cheung, "Koizumi pledges support for UN action in Iraq, aid to rebuild Afghanistan", the Associated Press, 13 September 2002.
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