The Rising East


Sunday, December 30, 2001

Japan’s reaction to
Afghan war shows
continued unease
with military force

Japan's supportive response to the American-led campaign against terror has given fresh impetus to a long-running debate about whether Japan should once again apply military force as an instrument of national power.

Ever since the Self-Defense Force was formed after the Korean War of 1950-53, Japanese and Western "Japan hands" have argued this question. The debate intensified after the Gulf War of 1991, when Japan was criticized for its "checkbook diplomacy" of $13 billion that helped to pay for military operations while Tokyo failed to send forces into harm's way.

After the terrorist assaults against the United States on Sept. 11, Japan's forthright response, including the dispatch of forces to support of American military action in Afghanistan, has been in marked contrast to its reluctance 10 years ago. That has given new urgency to the continuing debate.

In a gathering of Asian and American journalists here recently, a Japanese contended that Japan's attitude has undergone a fundamental change. He pointed to new laws permitting greater use of the Self-Defense Forces, to the deployment of those forces to support the Americans and to editorial changes in the influential Asahi Shimbun.

The newspaper has shifted from advocating unconditional pacifism to backing a limited use of military force.

"Japan is getting back into the business of using military force as an instrument of national policy," the Japanese asserted.

An American "Japan hand" disagreed. He argued that, to the contrary, Japan was not shedding the pacifist cocoon in which it has wrapped itself since the end of World War II.

He noted that public polls since the events of Sept. 11 had shown no interest in expanding Japan's military power. He also argued that political leaders in Japan had been diffident about debating the issue.

(To encourage candor, the rules of the Seventh Annual Honolulu Security Seminar precluded identifying the speakers.)

Still others took a position between the Japanese and the American, asserting that Japan's response to Sept. 11 has been the most aggressive since World War II but that evidence of a fundamental shift was scant. An American held that Japan was motivated primarily by a desire to avert the humiliation experienced in the Gulf War, and not much more.

Chinese and South Korean journalists asserted that Japan's recent actions were strong indications that Japan would acquire a military force comparable to that of the1930s and 1940s. They focused on the history of Japanese aggression before and during World War II and offered little hard evidence that Japan was embarked on a similar course today.

Outside of the seminar, Eugene Matthews, a senior fellow at the prominent Council on Foreign Relations in New York, has asserted that Japan's "new nationalists" should be watched since they might be leading Japan down a dangerous path. Like much of the shoddy journalism and scholarship on this issue in the United States today, Matthews did not name any of the "new nationalists" nor did he quote from any Japanese to support his thesis.

In contrast, a prominent Japanese commentator, Yoichi Funabashi of the Asahi newspaper, wrote recently: "What is important for the Japanese people to understand is that they, too, are directly exposed to threats of terrorism that do not take the form of states and to brace themselves for a long fight against terrorism."

Senior officials of the Bush administration and military officers as the Pacific Command here have expressed satisfaction with the Japanese response to President Bush's call to arms. "They are not exposing their forces to risk," said one officer, "but they have done everything we have asked them to do."

An analysis published by the Army War College in Pennsylvania said: "There has been surprisingly strong official and public support for a U.S. military response in the war (against terror). Compared to the paralysis and timidity Japan displayed during the Gulf War, Tokyo's response has been remarkably swift and robust."

In sum, the question of Japan's use of military force remains unanswered, largely because the Japanese people themselves have not formed a consensus on this critical issue. At rock bottom, said an American journalist, "This is a basic question of who the Japanese are, who they see themselves to be, and what they want for their country."

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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