In Japan, the Koizumi administration’s quick decision to send support ships and peacekeeping troops to the region reawakened a divisive debate over Japan’s use of military force abroad. Unable to effectively undertake promised economic reforms or achieve an economic recovery, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has seized upon a popular fear of terrorism and sympathy with U.S. suffering to pass domestic legislation permitting Japan’s first deployment of troops into a combat zone since World War II.

Progressive legislators and activists in Japan have strongly opposed this action. Thirty-four Diet members of the Democratic Party broke with their own leadership to vote against these measures. Japanese women’s groups opposed to U.S. bases in Japan and the expansion of Japan’s own military have held repeated demonstrations at U.S. bases and in front of the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. China and North Korea in particular have expressed strong concern with the “dangerous trend” in Japan’s emerging activist security posture. Yet this trend has been emerging over the past decade, and is not easily reversed.

Domestic and Foreign Factors: A Decade of Change for Japan

Despite their close military alliance, the U.S. and Japan took fundamentally different approaches to foreign policy during the cold war and into the 1990s. In pursuit of “comprehensive security,” Japan relied primarily upon economic assistance, quiet diplomacy, and diplomatic moderation in its relations with states throughout Asia and the Middle East. Japan thus addressed its global economic interests without disturbing its postwar pacifist consensus, all while ensuring a calculated level of independence from controversial U.S. policies around the world.

Japan’s policy was on full display in 1991, when Japanese leaders declined to send troops to the U.S.-led coalition attacking Iraq after a heated Diet debate. Instead Japan expected its long-term economic assistance and diplomatic support of the Gulf States to assure a steady supply of its economic lifeline, Middle Eastern oil. What Japan miscalculated was the response of its erstwhile ally, the United States.

U.S. leaders were apoplectic at Japan’s non-participation. Immediately after the war, U.S. military leaders and diplomats began to work more closely with conservative Japanese politicians to ensure that the next time the U.S. called for support, Japan would answer. Over the past decade, the alliance agreement has been revised several times, each time expanding Japan’s role in support of U.S. military forces.

The U.S. push for a more assertive, military-led foreign policy in Japan has been aided by several demographic, economic, and political developments within Japan over the past decade. First, the generation traumatized by Japan’s aggression in Asia during World War II has largely passed from political influence. Younger Japanese have far less appreciation for their neighbors’ fears of a reemergence of Japanese militarism. Second, decade-long economic stagnation has replaced Japan’s heady confidence of the 1980s with a disquieting sense of Japanese vulnerability to economic and security threats. Finally, progressive opposition parties that balanced the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for the past five decades have lost political ground to the conservative Democratic Party. Conservative politicians from both the LDP and the Democratic Party have increasingly demanded Japan’s Self Defense Forces take a more active role abroad.

The shock of the Gulf War, combined with these domestic changes over the past decade, has resulted in a tectonic-like shift in the fundamentals of Japan’s foreign policy. Instead of quiet, moderate diplomacy combined with economic assistance, Japanese leaders are slowly becoming more reliant upon displays of military might. This has been made disturbingly clear in the government’s active support of the U.S. military attacks in Afghanistan, and Japan’s subsequent policy trajectory.

Two Test Cases: North Korea and Afghanistan

In Central Asia, Japan has provided active military support for the U.S. bombing campaign. After passing historic enabling legislation with minimal debate, Japan sent warships to the region that were permitted not only to provide medical care, but also to help monitor operations, transport arms, and now even refuel British naval vessels engaged in military operations.

Japan’s Diet has recently approved “crisis legislation” which will include amendments to the Self-Defense Forces Law to allow the SDF to pass through private land, destroy buildings, and expropriate real estate and other assets, as well as revise laws under the jurisdiction of other government departments. Prime Minister Koizumi is also seeking expanded powers as the direct commander of the SDF, challenging the Constitutional division between the executive office and Japan’s military forces.

As in the U.S., these policies have been justified to the public as necessary to defend the nation against terrorism. For example, Japan’s new military budget triples the funding for defenses against biological and chemical attacks. Also like the U.S, the new budget piggybacks new funding for unrelated weaponry long coveted by the Defense Agency onto antiterrorism measures. Most disconcerting is the planned purchase of a Boeing plane giving Japan air-to-air refueling capacity. Originally opposed due to Asian nations’ anxiety over Japan’s apparent intentions to project military force abroad, the measure now looks to sail through a compliant Diet.

For its Asian neighbors, the most worrisome action taken by Japan recently is the sinking of a suspected North Korean ship. After spotting an unidentified ship in Japan’s nautical exclusive economic zone, Japanese forces surrounded this disguised fishing boat with an Aegis battleship, 25 patrol boats, and four jets. When the vessel began to flee, Japanese ships fired warning shots and gave pursuit. Eventually the ship was sunk inside China’s exclusive economic zone. Prime Minister Koizumi has accused North Korea of sending the ship, while Pyongyang has denied all involvement.

What has Beijing and Seoul most concerned is the aggressive use of lethal force by the Japanese Coast Guard. Chinese papers declared it a “worrying precedent for Japan in the post-World War II period,” while South Korean politicians declared the incident indicative of Japan’s ongoing policy of military expansion. Supported by Washington, Tokyo remains unapologetic for its use of military force outside its economic zone, even as a domestic investigation gets underway.

The incident suggests that Japan will continue its recent shift to a more aggressive stance toward North Korea. Since the 1998 North Korean “satellite” launch over Japan, Japanese fears of a North Korean threat have been worsening. The Koizumi government has capitalized upon these anxieties in its new hard-line toward Pyongyang. In addition to halting food aid shipments to the DPRK for this year, in late November Japanese police raided the headquarters of Chosensoren, the umbrella group for ethnic Koreans who support the North.

With the current heightened anxiety over potential terrorist attacks, Japanese leaders appear even less patient with the suspected provocations and diplomatic posturing of Pyongyang, and more inclined to adhere to the Bush administration’s hard-line lead in dealing with North Korea. This is a dangerous road to follow.

Instead of pressing Japan to follow in its stead, President Bush should use the opportunity of his visit to urge Japan to moderate its military spending and policy in East Asia in recognition of its neighbors’ historical distrust. As last month’s successful international conference on aid to Afghanistan showed, Japan can play a critical role in providing humanitarian aid in Central Asia and diplomatic engagement in Northeast Asia. Such policies maximize Japan’s foreign policy strengths and provide the best defense of its long-term national security interests.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.