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Japan Strives for New Role as Peacemaker - 2003-05-26

Japan has been the scene of a flurry of peace conferences and mediation meetings in recent weeks, attempting to tackle long conflicts in the Middle East and Asia. Tokyo has not traditionally been a dateline for international diplomacy, although Japan has long touted itself as a kind of Switzerland of the East, given its pacifist constitution.

Lately, though, Japan has been the location for an unprecedented number of gatherings aimed at making peace, or rebuilding war-torn countries. Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers have met here with Sri Lankan government negotiators. This month, Tokyo scrambled to hold emergency peace talks between Indonesian officials and Acehnese rebels, meetings that ultimately failed. Tokyo also played host to a low-key peace conference of Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinian Cabinet Affairs Minister Yassir Abd Raboud says Japanese hospitality made a difference in the unofficial talks. "The atmosphere which was afforded to us by the Japanese government was an excellent one and it enabled us to go deeply into discussing these issues - the direct, current issues [and] the long-run issues."

Former Japanese diplomat Hirokazu Arai says he believes Tokyo is trying to raise its profile in hopes of achieving a dream it has harbored for many years - a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. "It is a sort of an effort on the part of the Japanese government to demonstrate that Japan can play a role for international politics," he says. "They may think that the step-by-step effort would lead eventually to the international consensus Japan would deserve the post of the [permanent] member of the Security Council."

During its decades of economic boom, Japan engaged in checkbook diplomacy - buying friends with large amounts of aid. Critics say the foreign aid money frequently washed right back to Tokyo as Japanese companies won contracts to build roads, bridges and dams overseas.

But Etienne Reuter, the spokesman for the European Union's delegation in Japan, says now that Japan's economic bubble has burst, the checks are getting smaller. "To some extent that poses problems because now they have budgetary constraints whilst the peace efforts give them visibility - I mean they obviously spend some money on it too - and has a feel-good factor about it," he says.

Diplomats question whether Japan has any leverage to exert when it plays host to warring parties.

The region where Japan should have the strongest interest and influence is Asia. But Mr. Reuter, of the European Union, says Tokyo actually has limited credibility because it is perceived as not being appropriately remorseful about its brutal occupation of much of Asia before and during World War II.

"Here in Asia, nothing comparable to the process of, for instance, the French-German reconciliation in Europe, which is the cornerstone of the European Union - nothing like that has happened," he says. "So, to some extent, it means that Japan will always be handicapped in the kind of relations and diplomatic efforts it wants to project in this region."

Mr. Reuter and other diplomats point out Japan's special relationship with the United States may also be a liability in its quest to be a global diplomatic power.

Tokyo has depended on Washington for much of its security, and for guidance on international affairs for nearly 60 years. Thus it has rarely taken a strong, public stance in direct opposition to U.S. foreign policy.

Some diplomats say that creates the image in the minds of many foreign leaders that Japan is unable to make an independent contribution to peace-making and other diplomacy.