TOKYO, JAN. 18 -- Amid skittish public reaction to the war news from the Persian Gulf, Japan's political leaders meandered through another day of apparently fruitless debate over when, whether and how this rich, oil-hungry nation might provide more aid to the U.S.-led allied forces.
Government officials said Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu is considering a new cash contribution of about $2 billion to aid the multinational military force. Japan already has donated $4 billion. But it is not clear if Kaifu can overcome the objections of opposition politicians and some members of his cabinet to the additional aid.
That situation raises the possibility that Japan will get the worst of both worlds: It could end up paying a considerable sum, and take so long in doing so that it draws severe criticism from the United States and other nations in the thick of the fighting.
This was essentially the pattern last fall, when Japan delayed for weeks before finally agreeing to make its $4 billion contribution to the allied effort.
While Japanese media continued saturation coverage of the fighting -- often showing extended excerpts from American network reporting -- the Japanese people seemed frightened by the war raging halfway around the world.
Several companies, including giants like Toyota Motors and Fuji Bank, have sharply restricted employee travel for fear of terrorism. The Yomiuri Giants baseball team canceled its plans to hold spring training in Maui, Hawaii, apparently in the belief that any spot on American soil could be dangerous. Tokyo police visited the offices of U.S. companies here to check security measures.
While government leaders here repeated their "resolute support" for the allied attack on Iraq, the general population seems much less resolute.
The TV Asahi network carried out an overnight poll Thursday of about 300 people and reported that 53 percent oppose the allied attack on Iraq. Only 25 percent said they approved of the war, and another 16 percent said they felt President Bush had no choice but to order the attack.
Newspaper opinion columns and broadcast analysts were lukewarm in supporting Bush. The general tenor was that the war is a tragedy, but perhaps one that could not have been avoided.
Business leaders have been more willing to support the allied war effort and to demand additional Japanese aid. In an interview today, Takuro Bojo, president of the big consumer electronics firm JVC, complained that the only thing Japan's government has done since the war started is "delay, delay, delay."
Kaifu has declared that Japan will provide new financial and in-kind support for the allied forces. But any specific plan has been delayed by fighting within the cabinet.
One problem is that Japan's federal budget is approaching the end of its fiscal year in March with no operating deficit. This would be the first balanced budget in 15 years, a considerable achievement for the bureaucrats in the Finance Ministry and their boss, Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.
But Hashimoto's plans to finish the fiscal year without borrowing any money will go up in smoke if Japan contributes an additional $2 billion to the allied gulf effort.