The Japanese Navy Heads Home

By Ayako Doi
Special to's Think Tank Town
Thursday, November 1, 2007; 12:00 AM

Despite former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's assertion that he could keep his country's military support for Operation Enduring Freedom alive by stepping down, it now seems certain that Japanese Navy ships will sail home from the Indian Ocean at the beginning of this month. Japan has been supporting the U.S.-led effort to eradicate the Taliban and capture or kill Osama Bin Laden with a maritime refueling operation. But the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), newly invigorated by a landslide election victory in July, continues to adamantly object to an extension of the authorizing legislation, which expires November 1.

The prospect of Japanese withdrawal from the Operation has made some Japan-handlers and Japan-watchers in and out of the Bush Administration uneasy. After the DPJ captured control of the upper house of Japan's Diet last summer, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer -- who managed to spend two years in Japan without meeting Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the DPJ -- hustled for a face-to-face session to try to persuade him to reverse his opposition. Former National Security Council Asia Chief Michael Green, Bill Clinton's Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Kurt Campbell, and even former Secretary of State Colin Powell, traveled to Tokyo to say that pulling the Japanese Navy back from its Indian Ocean mission would harm U.S.-Japan security relations. A Washington Post editorial said Ozawa was "exploiting anti-U.S. sentiment -- for short-term partisan political advantage," and warned of "lasting damage to American and international perceptions of Japan's reliability."

Such last-minute pressures from officials panicked about filling the U.S. administration's needs represent a disregard for what should be seen as the real long-term interest of the U.S. There is a legitimate need to foster a thoughtful and real debate in Japan on the pros and cons of taking part in an unpopular U.S.-led operation. Such a debate could ultimately lead to greater understanding between both countries on issues that are certainly not going away.

At this point, the departure of Japanese ships will have little or no practical effect on the war in Afghanistan. But the significance of Japan's heretofore involvement, and the Japanese public's discomfort, continues.

This was Japan's first wartime deployment of a military unit outside its home territory since 1945 -- two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with strong public misgivings expressed in opinion polls. The opposition DPJ argued that Japan should use its military overseas only in operations sanctioned by the United Nations, but the post-9/11 U.S. attitude of "you are either with us or against us," along with a public statement by then-Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage that it was important for Japan to "show the flag along side the U.S." made it easy for then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to push the measure through the Diet. Many Japanese also felt that they had no choice but to side with the world's only superpower when North Korea was busy testing missiles off Japan's coasts.

In the ensuing six years, the Japanese navy has provided more than 70 million barrels of oil, free of charge, mostly to U.S. vessels, but also to the navies of Britain, Pakistan and other countries in the "coalition of the willing." But annual deliveries have now decreased to less than a tenth of their peak in 2002, and earlier this year, the DPJ uncovered data showing that some of the oil provided to the U.S. was used to support U.S. Navy operations in Iraq, a clear violation of the Japanese authorizing law.

Tokyo has gone a long way toward taking down its postwar pacifist taboos. It has sent Self Defense Forces troops to participate in UN peacekeeping operations in Cambodia, Mozambique, the Golan Heights and East Timor, among other places. But the controversy within Japan has not lessened, especially when it comes to the U.S.-led anti-Taliban coalition that lacks formal backing by the UN.

It's fair to say that these deployments, though largely humanitarian in nature, made things easier for the coalition forces in some minor ways, and certainly helped to support the Bush Administration's need to emphasize the size of the coalition. And despite the concerns of Japan's Asian neighbors about a return to the bad old days of Japanese militarism, no Japanese troops were killed or wounded -- and perhaps more importantly, no Japanese shots were fired in anger.

But Japan's expanding military activism also coincided with a rise of nationalism exacerbated by the feeling of insecurity associated with China's rise and North Korea's threatening behavior. Abe, who earned popularity by being tough on Pyongyang, emphasized the importance of education in instilling patriotism, pushed to restore traditional roles for men and women, and vowed to move Japan out of the "post-war era" by beginning the process of rewriting the no-war constitution imposed by the U.S. occupation. The devastating defeat of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the July election and the selection of the more moderate, dovish Yasuo Fukuda as Abe's successor reflect a lingering uneasiness among voters about what looked like the country's sharp turn to the right over the last several years. Many Japanese now also feel betrayed by Washington's "softening" on Pyongyang, which could halt progress with North Korea on the fate of Japanese abductees. An opinion poll by Asahi Shimbun earlier this month, found 48 percent opposed a Diet extension of the refueling operation, and just 28 percent supported it.

Just as Americans are engaged in an intense debate about the course of their country, the Japanese are beginning to have a serious debate among themselves about the best way they can contribute to stability in the world. Recent events in Turkey and Pakistan show just how fragile alliances can be when they are forged by leaders without wide political support from their own constituents. American leaders need to help foreign leaders build consensus through healthy debate rather than reflexively branding any policy disagreement by a foreign leader as "anti-American."

The author is an Associate Fellow at the Asia Society.

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