Japan and the Coming Out Party


2012-08-26 By Richard Weitz

The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States provided the Japanese government with an opportunity to reaffirm fidelity to the Japanese-U.S. alliance and Japan’s emerging role as an important international security actor.

Immediately following the September 11, 2011 al-Qaeda suicide strikes, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration initiated steps that led to the unprecedented deployment of Japanese troops in Afghanistan to provide noncombatant support for U.S.-led military operations against the Taliban.

Less than three years later, in January 2004, Tokyo deployed approximately 600 military personnel, again in noncombatant roles, to conduct humanitarian and reconstruction activities in southern Iraq.

The decision represented the first deployment of Japanese soldiers to a combat zone since World War II. Japan also provided logistical support for U.S. and other coalition troops in Iraq and pledged $5 billion in aid for Iraq’s economic rehabilitation.

Together, these decisions risked losing the government considerable domestic support, made Japanese citizens more vulnerable to Islamist terrorist retaliation, and alarmed Japan’s neighbors fearful of Japan’s military revival. They came against a background in which many other great powers, including traditional U.S. allies, either opposed the war or adopted a low profile, a situation in which a more isolationist Japan would have found plenty of company.

The Indian navy guided-missile destroyer INS Ranvir leads the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS Fitzgerald and the Japan Self-Defense Force destroyer JDS Kurama during Exercise Malabar 2009, an annual exercise led by the Indian navy. Navy Media Content, 4/29/09 

Before the 1973-74 Arab-Israeli War, Japanese governments had deferred to U.S. leadership when conducting policy toward the Middle East. The shock of the subsequent OPEC oil embargo, however, resulted in Tokyo’s distancing itself from Washington and adopting a more pro-Arab policy, while simultaneously pursuing measures to reduce Japan’s dependence on Middle East oil.

The policy shift helped improve ties with the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. From 1977-81 and again from 1985-86, Japan was the largest exporter of manufactured goods to Iraq, which also became an important oil supplier to Tokyo. At one point, one-quarter of all Japanese overseas development projects were concentrated in Iraq, including projects led by major Japanese firms such as Mitsubishi.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War again changed Japan’s regional and global security posture. Some members of the U.S.-led Desert Shield/Desert Storm coalition believed that, as one of the world’s largest economies and a major consumer of Middle Eastern oil, Japan should contribute to their UN-mandated mission with concrete military support.

American politicians and pundits were particularly critical of Japan’s unwillingness to provide more than just money in support of international initiatives designed to meet post-Cold War security threats. Japanese government officials, insisting that the dispatch of troops was prohibited by the constitution, pledged logistical support in the form of civilian aircraft and the deployment of medical personnel. In the end, domestic opposition prevented them from fulfilling even these non-military commitments. Tokyo instead simply contributed $13 billion to cover coalition costs—an act depreciated by some as “checkbook diplomacy.”

Tokyo’s decision to support the U.S.-led Desert Storm coalition, as well as its backing the imposition of UN economic sanctions on Iraq in 1998, caught the Baghdad government off-guard.

Iraqi leaders believed their economic ties with Japan had misled Iraqis into thinking that they would have Tokyo’s neutrality if not outright support. The Iraqi government responded by denouncing Japan as Washington’s lackey and detaining Japanese citizens as Desert Shield hostages.

Japanese policy makers wanted to emphasize their support for the United Nations and opposition to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as they were then serving as a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council (UNSC) and unsuccessfully seeking to secure a permanent UNSC seat after their two-year rotation ended.

In 1998, Japan co-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution No. 1154 with Britain and the United States. It warned that Iraq would face the “severest consequences” if it failed to allow UN inspectors free access to all suspected WMD sites.  The Japanese government backed Britain and the United States when they launched their Desert Fox air strikes against Iraq in December 1998 to coerce its government into allowing unrestricted UN inspections of its suspected WMD facilities.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Prime Minister Koizumi was among the first world leaders to reaffirm his country’s support for the United States.

A staunch proponent of the normalization of the Japanese military, Koizumi in early October 2001 helped to pass the Antiterrorism Special Measures Law. The legislation, which pledges Japanese support for the U.S.-led campaign in and around Afghanistan, was the first of several explicit steps taken by Tokyo to aid the United States in its fight against terrorism.

Renewed annually following its enactment in 2001, the Antiterrorism Special Measures Law allowed for the dispatch of the Marine Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) to the Indian Ocean to provide refueling services and other logistical support for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

In addition to maritime interdiction of suspected terrorist or WMD shipments, MSDF support included “transportation, repair and maintenance, medical services, communications, airport and seaport services, and base support” for U.S troops. The law also permitted the SDF to conduct surveillance and intelligence operations far away from Japan, as long as the SDF did not become part of the military force of any country. It was also unprecedented in that it authorized Japan’s soldiers to use weapons to defend people under their protection, and not merely in self-defense. Furthermore, the new legislation revised the country’s Coast Guard Law to permit firing warning shots at boats followed by shots to disable intruding boats.

Koizumi justified support for Operation Enduring Freedom by citing the 24 Japanese nationals killed in the 9/11 attacks as well as the Japan’s general need and commitment to counter international terrorism. Although Japan had largely escaped the Islamist-inspired terrorism seen in some other Asian countries as well as in Western Europe and the Middle East, the threat resonated with many Japanese given their country’s long experience with terrorism.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Japanese Red Army became one of the best-known extremist groups. Although the group’s declared objectives were to overthrow the Japanese government and monarchy and to start a world revolution, its most prominent attacks occurred in Tel Aviv, Singapore, and elsewhere. While the Aum Shinrikyo also conducted overseas operations, it became best known in 1995 for killing twelve people and affecting thousands more by releasing sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system. The cult had also conducted other biological and chemical attacks, which came to light after the subway incident.

The NDPG issued after OEF began identified “prevention of any threat from reaching the country directly by utilizing all available means” as part of basic security policy. Similarly, stabilization of the Middle East is described in the Guidelines as an essential part of Japan’s efforts to improve its security environment.

Japan depends on the Middle East for almost 90 percent of its oil supplies, which itself are essentially entirely imported. Such dependence has encouraged Japanese policy makers to seek to retain good relations with the Middle East oil suppliers, especially since the shock of the 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo made evident the dangers of alienating these countries through an overtly pro-Israel policy.

Even so, by the time of the 2003 Iraq War, Japanese policy makers had long lost faith in Iraq as a reliable energy partner—instead viewing its government’s hostile rhetoric regarding Japan and its allies, its threatening policies towards neighboring oil producers (which conveniently allowed Tokyo to maintain good relations with these countries even while breaking with Baghdad), and its efforts to promote higher world oil prices as a threat to Japan’s energy security.

Yet, the main concern that drove U.S. policy makers to invade Iraq—concern about a future attack by a nuclear-armed and hostile Iraqi government or Islamist terrorists collaborating with it—had less influence on Japanese decision making.

Instead, two specific Japanese security concerns made it seem both necessary and opportune to provide extensive support for Washington’s war in Iraq.

Japanese officials desired to sustain good diplomatic and security ties with the United States in the face of growing regional security threats from China and North Korea.

Those officials saw the conflict as an opportunity to affirm Japan’s expanding role in international security affairs without arousing undue alarm among anxious neighbors fearful that Japan’s military “normalization” could relax barriers to Japanese militarism that have existed since World War II.

Although Japanese policy makers ruled out providing direct military support for the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq that began on March 20, 2003, Koizumi immediately expressed his “understanding” of the reasons for the military intervention, despite its absence of a supporting UN Security Council resolution. More concretely, he arranged for an extension of the MSDF deployments in the Indian Ocean to free up U.S. forces for operations in Iraq. Koizumi then secured Japanese involvement in the coalition’s postwar stabilization efforts in Iraq.

Nonetheless, Japanese officials remain reluctant to provide additional support until the United States had secured United Nations endorsement of its Iraq campaign.

For a country that had long prided itself on supporting the United Nations financially and with peacekeeping troops, and that aspired to become a permanent member of its Security Council, the lack of alignment between American actions and the formal UN position presented paralyzing tensions.

It was only after the adoption of United Nations Resolution 1483, which called on member states to assist in Iraq’s reconstruction, that the Koizumi government submitted to the Japanese Diet, on June 13, a Law Concerning Special Measures on Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance in Iraq. This legislation, enacted on July 26, 2003, authorized the SDF to provide noncombatant support for American and other coalition forces in Iraq and surrounding Persian Gulf.

In January 2004, 600 GSDF personnel began to assist with post-conflict reconstruction activities (repairing schools, providing health care, distributing food and water, and assisting with the provision of other public services) in Samawah, southwest of Basra. The forces remained depended on Dutch and Australian forces for their defense. In addition, for much of their two and a half years in Samawa, the GSDF detachment, whose composition continuously changed as new members rotated in-and-out of the battlefield, were “unable to perform their stated duty of aid work” because of local violence.

Although the Japanese soldiers suffered no casualties, in July 2006, amidst the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, Koizumi announced that the force’s mission had been “fulfilled” and ordered their withdrawal. Even when they were deployed, Japan’s troop contribution was significantly less than that of the main U.S. coalition partner, the United Kingdom, or Japan’s neighbor South Korea, which sent 3,600 soldiers.

Nevertheless, the GSDF deployment in Iraq represented the largest and most dangerous overseas operation conducted by the Japanese military since World War II. By the time it had ended, more than 5,000 GSDF personnel and gained first-hand experience in a potential combat zone.

Although Japan no longer had ground forces in Iraq after the July 2006 withdrawal decision, the ASDF continued to provide logistical support for coalition forces.

From Kuwait and Qatar, roughly 200 Japanese airmen, since the beginning of the GSDF mission in Iraq, helped to transport supplies and troops (though no weapons) to Baghdad and northern Iraq aboard three C-130 transport planes. In August 2006, Japan and the United Nations signed an agreement formalizing this arrangement. In April 2007, the Japanese Nagoya High Court ruled that the ASDF mission violated Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution because it involved the airlifting of multinational troops to a war zone.

Government officials dismissed the ruling and reaffirmed their determination to end the missions as scheduled in 2009.