IS Japan trying to re-invent itself as a big-time player on the international political stage? Or, is Japan merely playing a U.S.-friendly game in a fashion different from that the world is accustomed to in the past several decades? Or, does Japan seek to signal its willingness and ability to rise above the confines of the psychological backlash from its neighbours against the `excesses' it committed during the Second World War?
Definitive answers to these questions may begin to take shape as Japan prepares to send units of its Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to Iraq on a humanitarian mission, under the auspices of the United States. The adoption of an enabling piece of legislation by the Diet (Parliament) on July 26 does not, of course, preclude the possibility of deploying the SDF in Iraq under a U.N. mandate. This marks a preliminary assessment of the latest Japanese law within the Asia-Pacific diplomatic circuit.
However, the relevant Bill passed by both the House of Councillors and the House of Representatives is seen to be accommodative of U.S. interests in Iraq. Ironically, the U.S., as the occupier, is trying to fashion the political constitution of Iraq, reminiscent of how Japan's present Constitution owes its pacifist orientation to the Douglas MacArthur-era of U.S. occupation of Japan after the Second World War.
Significantly, much of the opposition among the Japanese people to the latest `Iraq law', piloted by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, is based on the perceived non-tenability of the proposed SDF deployment in Iraq under their own pacifist Constitution. At a more pragmatic level, though, a number of Japanese are wary of the fact that the SDF personnel, when deployed in Iraq on `non-combat logistic duties', would be virtually defenceless against attacks from the anti-U.S. resisters. This aspect explains not only the sizable opposition to Koizumi's Iraq gamble but also the perception that he has bent over backwards to please the U.S. following President George W. Bush's call for Japanese help in Iraq.
A variety of political factors determined the domestic opposition to Koizumi's `Iraq law'. The parties that tried to block or delay the passage of the relevant bill, prior to its final approval by the House of Councillors, ranged from the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Party to the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party. Their tactics included censure motions against Ministers and even a no-confidence move against the government, tabled in the House of Representatives. A scuffle among parliamentarians in the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of the Upper House, too, marked the proceedings along the way.
In the event, Koizumi rode out the parliamentary storms, but later conceded that his aim was to act only on the basis of an "independent judgment" (euphemism for steering clear of the U.S.' diktat). To ensure the safety of the SDF personnel, he would send them to Iraq only after studying the situation there. The assurance was based on the contention of diplomats in the region that it might be easier to trace a needle in a haystack than to identify safe areas in U.S.-occupied Iraq.
While China and South Korea reminded Japan of the need to adhere to its "defence only policy" in the new circumstances, the U.S. was delighted to have found a friend in need. According to Murata Koji, an expert on Tokyo-Washington ties, Japan has so far "functioned as a safe haven for the United States" and it therefore has not had to be concerned about being "entrapped" in military conflicts against its wishes. Now, the question is whether Japan can avoid getting entrapped in Iraq, where it might at best share the U.S.' interests partially.