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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
August 15, 2003

The Japanese Decision: Abridged Version

Takashi INOGUCHI (Professor, University of Tokyo)

This is an abridged version of Prof. Inoguchi's full paper, which was published in "openDemocracy" on August 7, 2003, and is available in PDF form.


Japan has been known for its anti-militarist constitution, institutions and public opinion for more than half a century. But on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, prime minister Junichiro Koizumi announced that the government he led would lend support to the 'Coalition' forces led by the United States and Britain in their effort to enforce regime change in Iraq. It is very important to point out that Koizumi's statement referred to the fact that Iraq had consistently failed to comply with numerous United Nations resolutions since the end of the Gulf war of 1991, and that this was regarded as too serious to be left unpunished. Japan's support for the Coalition was therefore based on international law, not on any endorsement of preemptive doctrine.

This declaration of support for the Coalition, although significant, did not commit the Japanese government to active support for the military campaign. But now, in the aftermath of the war, Koizumi's government has taken the more radical step of passing legislation which permits it to send troops of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to Iraq to help in the social and economic recovery of the country. Why then has Japan decided to send forces when its constitution both enshrines a war-renouncing preamble and forbids military action abroad?


Japan in search of a global role

In my view, Japan's Iraqi decision can be most fruitfully considered in the broad context of Japan's self-defined global role in the world. Such a self-defined role normally connects the internal political dynamics and external geo-strategic conditions of a country. In the case of Japan, the country has gone through a three-step metamorphosis over the last two decades.


After 2001: Japan as a global power for justice

A new phase in Japan's search for a self-defined global role opened with 11 September 2001. In its aftermath, Japan joined those partners willing to combat a form of terrorism widely-spread and of an unprecedented scale and nature. This new role is very significant in Japan's evolving conception because it combines the element of justice with the element of order.

The previously self-defined roles of a systemic supporter and a global civilian power each took for granted an international system led by the United States. To help sustain it was considered as Japan's priority; within that, its choice was merely to extend more help or less help.

But after 9/11, Japan had to choose between two opposing options: join the United States-led antiterrorist front or stick to the less coercive action against terrorism sanctioned by the United Nations. Needless to say, Japan has continuously reinforced in practice the values and norms it shares with the United States, the Group of Eight (G8) countries and broadly the west as a whole whenever it carries out international action. But it is important to emphasise the fact that, this time, Japan has to choose which action carries more justice and less evil.

Thus, judgment about justice entered the vocabulary of Japanese diplomacy on a fuller and more explicit scale than ever before. This of course constitutes part of what John Vincent calls the 'diplomacy of justice'; but it represents also an unmistakable departure from those days when a Japanese political leader could be ridiculed as in the case of a notorious remark by Charles de Gaulle as 'a transistor salesman'.


Japan in a new global landscape

Prime minister Junichiro Koizumi faces an election for the presidency of his Liberal Democratic Party in September 2003. The next general election is expected to take place in November. The two largest opposition parties, Democrats and Liberals, have recently agreed to merge their parties in an attempt to capture power from the LDP. The two major issues in the general election are likely to be the economy and policy towards the "axis of evil" countries North Korea, Iraq and Iran.

The issue of manufacturing/manipulating intelligence to dramatically justify the Iraq war which has been haunting the United States and the United Kingdom governments has not yet seriously damaged the Japanese government. This is because to return to the point made at the outset Junichiro Koizumi's statement supporting the war was couched only in the language of rejection of Iraq's steadfast noncompliance with a series of United Nations resolutions since 1991; and this point was reinforced by the prime minister's pledge to President Bush (made in May 2003 at Crawford, Texas) to restrict post-war assistance to Iraq's economic reconstruction. Nevertheless, it is clear that with the war over Iraq and its painful aftermath, Japan has entered a divisive and unknown territory called justice in global politics.


(Do not quote without the author's permission.)

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