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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #131: April 28, 2004

On Reproducing Japan's Economic 'Miracle' in Iraq

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)

The Bush administration was not abash about invoking parallels between Japan after World War II and an occupied Iraq after regime change in 2003. Despite all the difficulties being encountered in Iraq, President Bush continues to insist on the vision, however misplaced, that Iraq will be to the Middle East what many American officials believe postwar Japan was to Asia: a beacon for democracy and development. Regardless of the vast and obvious differences in the structure, context and motives behind these two occupations (see John W. Dower's article "History in the remaking," LA Times, 8 December 2003) comparisons between the two keep appearing in the news. Most troubling has been the lack of reluctance on the part of the Japanese government to discourage the view that its participation in the "reconstruction" of Iraq will somehow help reproduce what has long been referred to as Japan's economic 'miracle'.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has justified the troop dispatch to Iraq on the basis that the Self Defense Forces are embarking on a humanitarian mission. What we hear coming out of Iraq, more specifically from the citizens of Samawah, is their expectation that Japanese forces will bring with them jobs and improved welfare. The billions of dollars that Japan has pledged to reconstruction efforts in Iraq may lead to fulfill some of their expectations in the short-term, however, no guarantee can be made that these initiatives will promote long-term growth and security in Iraq. Worse yet, under the present circumstances there is no assurance that even the most immediate projects will go into effect.

The Japanese government has long been aware that many Arabs have a deep admiration for Japan's recovery from the devastation of war. Numerous studies conducted by Middle Eastern researchers have considered the idea of learning from the "Japanese model." When the Middle East Peace Process was alive, Israeli scholars joined with Arab intellectuals to mull over this possibility, their initiatives were often supported by the Japanese government both financially and institutionally. One such endeavor was an international conference held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1996 and 1997. The outcome of the project was the publication of an edited volume entitled, Lessons from East Asia for the Development of the Middle East in the Era of Peace (The Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Jerusalem, 1998). However, now that all hopes for peace in the Middle East have been eclipsed by war and violence much of the enthusiasm has died down. Nevertheless, intellectuals who want to capitalize on this representation continue to appear, the latest of which is the reproduction of Toshio Nishi's book entitled Unconditional Democracy: education and Politics in Occupied Japan (Hoover Institution Press, February 2004). In the reissue, Nishi reiterates the view that his aim is to provide insight into how the U.S. succeeded in pacifying Japan and in joining it to the international community of Western democracies and suggests that these lessons can be applied to other cases of regime change, again serving to reinforce this misleading Japan-Iraq analogy.

In Iraq, the argument stressing the relevance of Japan's case to Iraq has been kept alive by the Japanese government. Defense Agency Director General Shigeru Ishiba stressed this view when he told the chairman of the interim Iraqi Governing Council, Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, that, "he hopes that Iraq will recover just as Japan did after its World War II defeat" (Kyodo, March 24, 2004). In fact, Kyodo quotes Ishiba as going even further and suggesting that, "I believe that Iraq, where there are abundant resources and brilliant people, will be able to achieve development surpassing that of Japan." We all aspire that this will come true, however, considering the present circumstances such statements clearly create false hopes. Furthermore, judging from the fact that the Coalition Provisional Authority has opened the country up for sale by making it possible for foreign companies to buy 100% of Iraqi firms and immediately repatriate any profits, it is questionable whether Iraqis will be the primary beneficiaries of any development.

In April of 2004, Japan's government run NHK (National Broadcast Corporation) provided a Lebanon based satellite broadcast station with the English version of its Project X series of television documentaries, which chronicles Japan's rapid economic growth, free of charge. Considering that this station serves ten countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraq, it is difficult to negate the notion that the Japanese government has taken an active role in trying to promote the image that its participation in the US-led occupation of Iraq could reproduce Japan's success. That the release of this series coincided perfectly with the arrival of Japanese troops in Samawah confirms that the linkage has been intentional.

The motivation behind promoting this view is obvious and understandable. Japan wants to avoid becoming a target of terrorism, armed attack and popular animosity as it participates in the U.S.'s attempt to reshape the Middle East. However, one cannot but caution the Japanese government against this policy as it will surely backfire. The task at hand is simply too monumental to suggest that Iraq will be remade into a prosperous democracy even if Japan were given twenty years. Furthermore, considering that Japanese firms are being awarded the majority of reconstruction contracts in Iraq, it is doubtful that Iraq will benefit economically from the huge influx of cash that these projects create. Instead, the old formula of tied aid seems to be operative where Japanese firms continue to profit from overseas development assistance. Finally, Japan would be wise to play down expectations in Iraq. The United States remains in shell shock today as it tries to understand why its troops are not being greeted as liberators. False expectations die quickly in Iraq, particularly if they are self-motivated. Japan would do well to discourage any attempts to link its legacy with Iraq's future.

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