TOKYO — Japan is debating a more active role in support of expected U.S. military retaliation following last week's terrorist attacks on American targets. The move is aimed at avoiding the public relations disaster it suffered during the 1991 Gulf War, when its response was seen as slow, inadequate and misdirected.
"A common slogan among Japanese politicians today is, 'Don't repeat the Gulf War problem,' " said Masashi Nishihara, president of Japan's National Defense Academy. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi "is quite nervous because he doesn't want to see Japan isolated internationally again," she said.
In particular, critics say, Japan risks being the odd man out in any battle against international terrorism if it becomes mired in legalistic arguments and bureaucratic squabbles.
"Other countries quickly respond to threats, but in Japan the government is paralyzed," said Makoto Momoi, a defense analyst. "First they discuss at great length whether they're within the constitution, then they discuss at great length what they should or shouldn't do. There's no effective crisis management, and no one's willing to take responsibility."
A law proposed in the aftermath of the attacks would allow Japan's Self-Defense Forces--effectively, its army, navy and air force--to shuttle fuel, food and medical supplies to U.S. soldiers.
Passage of the law by parliament is far from certain, however. A recent poll found only 41% believe Japan should support U.S. retaliatory strikes. "I'd give it, say, a 50-50 chance," said Akio Watanabe, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security. "Maybe 60-40."
Under domestic pressure to act decisively, as well as reported pressure from Washington to show tangible signs of support, Koizumi said Wednesday his government will deploy a spy ship to the Indian Ocean to gather intelligence on terrorist organizations, and was offering $10 million for rescue efforts in New York and at the Pentagon. Japan also is extending financial aid to India and Pakistan, considering stepped-up protection of U.S. bases in Japan and scrambling to arrange a quick trip to Washington by Koizumi early next week.
Japan, a nation sometimes called an economic giant but a foreign policy midget, has often found it difficult to strike the right international tone in times of crisis. During two 1970s oil shocks, Japan was accused of doing whatever oil-producing states demanded to secure energy for itself as other consuming nations tried to forge a common front.
In the early 1990s, as Operation Desert Storm ramped up, Tokyo offered a token financial contribution but no manpower--an offer that was initially rebuffed. Eventually it ponied up $13 billion, but many condemned its response as too little, too late. In a full-page New York Times advertisement after the war, Kuwait thanked the international community for its support; Japan's name was noticeably absent.
In fact, some say, it isn't terribly obvious what Japan can contribute. Japan's sorry economic state makes a hefty financial contribution difficult. The constitution--or, some say, the way it's interpreted--forbids the country from providing direct support to U.S. forces engaged in conflict. And the country's international spy network isn't particularly well-regarded.
Even Japan's early emotional response has come under scrutiny. Yukio Okamoto, a Japanese diplomat during the Gulf War and now head of a government diplomatic policy team, says Japan's leaders were far outpaced by some other heads of state in expressing sympathy or support to Americans.
"Several of my Japanese friends living in the United States have said they cannot see the face of Japan," he said in an interview with the Asahi newspaper.
Part of this may reflect cultural differences, says Shigeo Tatsuki, a sociologist at Kyoto's Doshisha University. Japanese tend to express sympathy through gestures rather than words, which may seem to trivialize the victim's feelings. "We share American anger, frustration and shock but don't always feel it's our business to say it out loud," he said.
Others point out that Japan's legal and security bind was, in part, imposed on the country. "It's the Americans, after all, who wrote the Japanese constitution," said Katsuya Okada, research policy head with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
Last week's tragic events are also forcing Japan to look more closely at its own vulnerability to international terrorism.
The media here say more than 10 Islamic extremists entered Japan from Pakistan earlier this month. Reports also suggest Osama bin Laden operatives may have carried out trades on the Japanese stock exchange, allowing them to profit from the World Trade Center attack.
"Unfortunately it's very difficult for Japan to mobilize," said the research institute's Watanabe. "I hope this time provides an opportunity for a breakthrough."
Rie Sasaki in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.