However much the Japanese government insists that its Self-Defense Forces are not taking part in a “war” in Iraq, the deployment of 1,000 Japanese troops to undertake civilian reconstruction projects there marks a watershed — the end of a half-century’s military isolationism since World War II.
It comes as a surprise to learn that the Iraq dispatch accounts for a mere fraction of Japan’s massive military. As Asia Times points out, Japan has the world’s second or third most powerful military force and second-largest navy, and Japan’s ground forces are 30 percent larger than British army.
Japan, an economic superpower, is becoming a serious player in world politics. At a time when the United States is engaging in a go-it-alone foreign policy and neighboring China is growing in economic and political influence, the Japanese have been more willing than at any time in the past to re-evaluate their own foreign policy. Norimitsu Onishi argues
in the New York Times that though the Japanese have come to terms with the United States’ economic and military supremacy, they are less prepared to relinquish regional preeminence.
“[E]ven as Japanese have become less focused on competition and more on their quality of life, there is deep fear and ambivalence about becoming second class to the rising power next door [China]. It is, after all, a country that the Japanese had colonized a mere half a century ago.”
Excepting North Korea, which characterized the Iraq deployment as “a prelude to the overseas aggression of the Japanese militarists,” there was no hostile commentary from Japan’s other neighbors. (This was a little surprising, since crimes committed by Japanese troops during WWII are part of living memory at least in China and South Korea.)
“[O]pposition politicians protested, but without much fervor, the dispatch of armed soldiers, contending that it violated Article 9 of the Constitution, which prohibits the use of armed force to settle disputes. About 4,000 protesters rallied in Tokyo with banners: ‘We don’t need a war.’ In a land where demonstrations of tens of thousands have been fashioned, kabuki-style, into an art form, a protest of 4,000 is not worth the ink its takes to print this.”
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is considering introducing constitutional changes that would provide more freedom for future troop deployments. Koizumi has been a strong supporter of President George W. Bush and an advocate of a more activist Japanese foreign policy. It would be a mistake, though, to attribute the shift solely to Koizumi. The turning point came during the 1991 Gulf War when Japan restricted its contribution to economic aid and was sharply criticized by its allies for doing so. Having pledged $5 billion in aid to Iraq since 2003, Japan is the next largest contributor to the reconstruction effort after the U.S. Since the early 1990s, several laws have been passed enabling Japanese troops to participate in U.N. peace-keeping missions. Public acceptance of such humanitarian missions has grown over the years.
Koizumi, though, is in a very precarious position. If there are casualties, public opinion may quickly turn against the deployment. The government’s treatment of journalists covering the Iraq mission is one indication that the prime minister is all too aware of this.