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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #135: June 25, 2004

Japan and the Implications of a Value Based Foreign Policy

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

In the wake of Japan's decision to send Self Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq a significant amount of attention has been devoted to analyzing Japan's future course in international affairs. Most media pieces that I have seen take the approach that Japan has embarked on a new policy that implies an eventual revision of the postwar constitution. These commentaries claim that Japan is re-emerging on the international scene as, at minimum, a "normal" nation and possibly as a dominant player.

Prime Minister Koizumi's cabinet took a radical departure from Japan's traditional interpretation of constitutional limits placed on troop deployment when it decided to send the SDF to Iraq on a mission without U.N. sanction, international legitimacy, wide-spread domestic support and in a situation where hostilities had yet to cease. Considering Koizumi's willingness to stand by his decision regardless/mindful of the implications, journalists and analysts have called this a "bold" stance. They view Japan's choice as either a decision to abandon its traditional military limitations and/or its readiness to support the United States at all costs while boosting its political and military presence in matters of global security.

Justifying what has been interpreted as a commitment to a more active foreign policy, the Prime Minister and his cabinet members have started to define their objectives in terms of values. Until as late as 2000, the Japanese government, while committed in principle to human rights and democracy, did not publicly employ these values as defining principles for its engagement in the world. Part of this was related to Japan's traditional preference for pragmatism that advanced Japan's interest for "stability" around the globe and particularly in Asia. Another aspect promoted concrete developmental objectives as defined by the international community, most often at the United Nations. Under this framework Japan would rarely characterize its involvement as a policy designed to advance free market capitalism, human rights or democracy in countries that were resistant to ‘Western' definitions of these principles. In essence, Japan's foreign policy was non-intrusive. While Japan would readily support U.S. missions diplomatically and economically it never openly contributed militarily.

With the troop dispatch to Iraq, Japan has shed its inclination against direct association with intrusive and coercive foreign policy initiatives. Koizumi has placed Japan on the front-line of international controversy and conflict in defense of value laden foreign policy objectives. Japan is now an overt participant in carrying out regime change in countries that are antagonistic to these organizing principles and has repeatedly stressed its common commitment to the values of democracy, free markets and human rights when pushed to explain its policy change and a deepening alliance with the U.S.

This explanation is vulnerable to criticism. Japan's record on each of these three categories can be questioned repeatedly. Most obvious has been Japan's inability to resolve outstanding claims of human rights violations that date back to the initial stages of the Great East Asian War and continue until the present day. Japan's refusal to extradite former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori who is wanted for crimes against humanity, its resistance to accepting asylum seekers and its discriminatory practices feted out to residents of foreign descent put into question its commitment to human rights. In terms of free and fair trade, Japan's own highly protective policies that impinge upon the ability of developing countries to compete erodes Japan's image as a fair trader. Finally, Japan's lack of willingness to sanction the military dictatorship in Burma and its hands off approach to promoting democracy in places such as China, Egypt, Kuwait, Iran and Pakistan questions Japan's commitment to democracy as well.

While an active foreign policy that associates with U.S. defined objectives may advance Japan's bi-lateral standing with the United States, it exposes the inadequacies and failures of Japan's foreign and domestic policy when it comes to international standards of democracy, human rights and fair trade. If Japan plans to define its international role according to these values, as it seems to be doing, it must put words into action. The consequences of not doing so are potentially disastrous. As so many have come to realize over the past several years, America's enemies do not hate the United States because of its values, rather they attack it because of its policies, policies that most often run counter to their stated objectives.

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