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Japan Debates Military Role in Terror War - 2001-10-01

The Japanese Parliament is debating whether to enact Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's plan to provide rear-guard military support to any U.S. military action against terrorism. The move is already generating strong concerns among some of Japan's neighbors, which suffered under Japanese militarism more than 50 years ago.

During his election campaign earlier this year, Prime Minister Koizumi voiced his eagerness to see Japan's military role expand, in line with its status as a global economic power.

So it came as little surprise when Mr. Koizumi answered Washington's call to fight terrorism with an offer to provide the United States with extensive military assistance, including ferrying supplies, setting up medical care, and even dispatching naval ships to gather intelligence for U.S. forces.

London-based Asian security expert Phil Deans says the root of this offer goes back to Japan's desire to avoid the deep embarrassment it suffered during the Gulf War, when it was criticized for contributing money, but not logistical support to help the allied war effort. "Even though Japan footed a lot of the cost of the Gulf War, Japan was regarded as having sat on the sidelines, having done nothing," he said. "Japan is the second largest economy in the world, and is often regarded by the West and by the United States, in particular, as free-rider, a country that doesn't play its part."

Much of the reason for that stems from the fact that Japan is constitutionally banned from fighting, except in self-defense. The country's post-World War II constitution also contains an article that has been interpreted as prohibiting Japanese forces from taking even a supporting role in any outside military action.

But Japan, as the United States' staunchest ally in Asia, is now coming under enormous pressure to help the United States in its current war against terrorism. Mr. Koizumi's emergency legislation, being debated in Parliament, would allow the Japanese military to take unprecedented steps to meet some of those expectations.

Asia security analyst Alan Dupont in New Zealand says, however, any legislation that increases Japan's military role is bound to upset its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea. Millions of people in both countries are believed to have died in atrocities committed by Imperial Japanese soldiers before and during World War II. "The primary concern of the Chinese is that the Japanese are using this opportunity to remilitarize, which is one of the main concerns the Chinese have had over the last 5 to 10 years," said Alan Dupont. "The South Koreans recognize that Japan is under some external pressure from the United States. But nevertheless, the Koreans are pretty nervous about what measures the Japanese are proposing, and whether this is going to be a trend further into the future."

As the other staunch U.S. ally in the Pacific, South Korea has been hard-pressed to criticize Japan's move to help the United States. The Seoul government has so far consoled itself with Mr. Koizumi's promise to keep his new defense plan temporary.

But China has expressed concern, saying any military action by Japan would have to be regarded sensitively. Beijing has urged Japan to be "prudent" in aiding the fight against terrorism.

Phil Deans in London notes that Tokyo's continuing refusal to formally apologize for its wartime atrocities has badly eroded confidence in Japan's pledge to remain militarily neutral in the region. He says he does not believe any action taken by Japan at this point to reassure its neighbors will work. "I think Japan has lost its opportunity of reconciling with its neighbors," he said. "In the 1950s and '60s, there was a window for Japan to engage in its past, and to be open and honest with its neighbors. But this opportunity was missed and I think now, the distrust is so deep, that perhaps the history question is irreconcilable."

The issue of a stronger military is controversial even in Japan, where older generations remember the devastation of war. But the majority of Japanese say they support Mr. Koizumi's proposals to aid in the U.S.-led counter-terrorism operation.