TOKYO, AUG. 23 -- Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, groping to find a way for his wealthy and oil-hungry country to lend a hand in the Middle East crisis, said today that Japan will send medical personnel and supplies to the region.
Kaifu said his government will work to develop a more comprehensive response, but as a first step, 100 to 200 Japanese medical experts will head to the Arabian Peninsula in about a week. According to various reports here, the additional moves under consideration in the cabinet range from financial grants to the dispatch of navy minesweepers.
Japan also is trying to resolve the fate of around 500 of its citizens who have been stranded in Iraq and Kuwait since the invasion. The Japanese Foreign Ministry said that despite offers from Iraq to release Japanese citizens if Japan ignores the U.N. sanctions, Japan will continue to support the boycott.
The impact of the crisis on Japan's economy has been mixed. The Tokyo stock market has plummeted over the past three weeks, almost back to its low point in the 1987 crash. In contrast, the yen has shown considerable strength on currency markets, reducing the effects on Japanese customers of the increase in oil prices since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
The initial signs indicate that the Persian Gulf crisis, even with a big jump in oil prices, will not seriously hamper the current prosperity.
The government's evident struggle over how to get involved in the gulf situation is reflected in the quandary facing Kaifu and his cabinet: In a military crisis, what role is there for a country with a powerful economy and a pacifist constitution?As the Japanese people grow increasingly comfortable with their status as an economic superpower, the nation is looking for ways to take a more active role in foreign affairs. Commentators and editorial writers here have been saying for the past three weeks that the Middle East is a natural spot for Japan to get involved. After all, they note, Japan imports all of its oil, and most of that comes from the Middle East.
In addition, Japan's position as a major exporter requires it to keep on good terms with its customer countries. Since many of its best customers are involved in the allied response to the Persian Gulf crisis, Japan does not dare sit quietly on the sidelines.
Still, the government and the people seem extremely reluctant to step in militarily.
Japan has a fairly large military establishment. But the postwar constitution written for this country by the American occupation force in 1947 declares that Japan cannot send military forces overseas. Some mildly hawkish politicians here say there might be a legal way to send minesweepers to the Persian Gulf, but the public may not agree.
One thing Japan can legally send abroad is money. As the world's second-richest nation, measured by gross national product per capita, Japan is equipped to provide financial aid where needed.
Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama, touring Arab nations this week, has promised economic aid at each stop. A Foreign Ministry spokesman here cited five Arabian Peninsula countries -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates -- as likely recipients of Japanese aid, either now or after the current crisis.
On Wednesday, Japan pledged to provide economic aid to Egypt. Although no details of the agreement were released, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said his country is likely to lose $2 billion a year in foreign exchange because of the crisis.
As welcome as that help might be, there is a sense here that Japan ought to do more than just send money.
That is why Kaifu could not decide until nearly the last minute whether to go ahead with a scheduled tour of the gulf region last week. In the end, he canceled the trip and sent Nakayama in his place. But ever since, Kaifu has been looking for ways to give Japan a role in the allied effort to undo what Iraq has done.
Kaifu took unusually quick action, by Japanese standards at least, when he decided two weeks ago to impose an embargo against oil purchases from Iraq and Kuwait. In past Middle East crises, Japan generally has taken action only with the United Nations.
But this time, Kaifu -- with some pressure from President Bush -- announced the Japanese embargo before the matter even came up at the United Nations.
The response to Kaifu's decision to send in the relatively small number of medical personnel shows the kind of pressures he is feeling.
When on Wednesday he told Takako Doi, the leader of Japan's main opposition party, that he was thinking of sending doctors to the gulf, she told reporters that she was concerned about excessive Japanese involvement.
Today, though, U.S. Ambassador Michael Armacost -- in some ways a more powerful figure in Japan than any opposition political leader -- said the United States would like to see Japan send more support personnel to the region.
Kaifu indicated today that he probably can send medical experts to the Middle East without violating the statute governing Japanese crisis teams sent overseas. But he probably will ask the legislature this fall to rewrite the law so he also can send government experts in transportation, communications and finance.