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Japan and the War on Terror


There were perhaps 10,000 gathered at various protest meetings nationwide January 18, with the majority 7,000 gathered in Hibiya Park in Tokyo. Our own small city of Mishima brought out about fifty, mainly from the Teacher’s Union which has had a long association with the political left, and the man next to me was reading the Aka Hata (Red Flag) published by the Communist Party. Most in attendance were middle-aged to elderly, with myself the only foreigner. From the local university campus there were two young women, one a third-year student and the other who was her friend a reporter for the school newspaper.

Before the actual demonstration march — a thirty-minute course from the city hall where we had gathered to the train station — there was a free-talk gathering at one of the annex buildings of the city hall. The first speaker was the organizer Fukuo Masao who after introducing himself went on to say that he was born in 1914 and had thus experienced both fighting in warfare and being bombed. It was a somber moment. On this day we were raising our voices against not only the seemingly unstoppable action by the US and Britain but also Japan’s contribution to the campaign. The Naval Self Defense Force has sent the advanced technology Aegis surveillance ship to the Indian Ocean, and during the bombing of Afghanistan sent re-fuelling vessels.

All this may seem surprising for a country that has renounced war as an instrument of foreign policy, the famous Article 9 of the constitution, but it is these very terms that are currently under especial threat due to an impending piece of legislation now under debate in the National Diet known in Japanese as the Yuji Hosei-an, or the War Contingency Act. Comprising three bills it would in effect allow the SDF to participate in “regional”–an indefinable word–campaigns headed by the US under the rubric of “collective security”. The idea of “collective security” is of relatively recent origin, emerging under the “New Guideline” that passed the Lower House after fierce debate in 1997. This was a revision of the AMPO agreement (created in 1960 and catalyst for the legendary “Ampo riots”) for the cooperation of the two nations in case Japan itself were under attack.

The push for more direct Japanese involvement in US military “regional” campaigns (which has come to mean Central Asia and the Middle East) has been gaining momentum in the decade since Gulf War I and came to a head after 9.11. In Washington soon after the incident Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirô emerged smiling from a meeting with Bush saying in fragmented English that he was willing to contribute “anything” to the fight against terrorism. Soon Japan’s own Antiterrorism Special Measures Law was signed allowing for re-fuelling vessels to support US forces in the Afghan campaign. Under the legislation currently in debate SDF forces could be deployed abroad preemptively if–in the nebulous terminology of the government–there was a situation in which an attack on Japan could possibly be perceivable. Additionally, SDF stationed abroad could participate in combat situations because any attack on these forces is redefined as an attack on Japan. Likewise the bills allow for the requisitioning of domestic resources for wartime, a taboo since the end of WWII (Australia National University’s Gavin McCormack’s analysis of the re-arming of Japan and her participation in the Afghan conflict is required reading).

The Man Behind the Permanent Wave

Koizumi made much of his rapport with Bush even before 9.11 and it is easy to see how the two sheltered scions of wealthy political families would have a chemistry between them. He was the Minister of Health and Welfare for a short period under a past administration, has never had a job outside of high-level elected officialdom and like Clinton exudes a fragrance of dandy counter-culturism: handsome, extremely well-spoken and enjoying traveling and the arts, kind of like the late Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn without the outward xenophobia. Foreign policy is his favor and visiting countries his pleasure to the extent that the national newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun once chided him for conducting affairs without the baton of an able foreign minister. The woman currently holding this position is pliant and uncreative leaving the practicalities of Koizumi’s true nationalistic and militaristic leanings to the steely-eyed State Minister for Self-Defense Ishiba Shigeru (his bumbling predecessor was removed in a cabinet re-shuffling after falling in scandal involving illegal surveillance of a Tokyo city councilman). A public statement expressing support for a joint US-Japan missile development scheme followed his visit last month to the White House. Ostensibly this is being presented as a defense against North Korea’s attack potential–North Korea’s Tepoton test flight which overflew Japan in 1997 is still a fresh memory — but it can be read as just one part of a restructuring of Japan’s policy priorities. Koizumi’s more personal assertion of nationalistic pride often take the form of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine to pay respects to deceased members of the old Imperial Army, including convicted war criminals.

To this end, Koizumi interprets the “War on Terrorism” as a chance for Japan to be more “international” and defines involvement in the Iraqi campaign as such under questioning from the main opposition leader Kan Naoto of the Minshutô (Democratic Party). During Question Time last week in the Lower House of the Diet, Kan voiced publicly his opposition to an invasion but was unable to get a blustery Blair-like commitment to such an action from Koizumi who instead opted for the “wait and see” approach. However, with the Aegis frigate already dispatched and the Koizumi’s verbal endorsement of monetary aid it is difficult to see the current administration veering from the White House course, and this in a time of great domestic economic difficulty. Unemployment is officially at 5.6% (approx. 3,380,000 people) and new hirings down over the past 15 consecutive months. Koizumi’s public policy shortcomings might be his downfall, especially if unemployment continues to rise and there are cuts in the national retirement pension scheme. Japan’s mega-banks are in crisis posting record deficits due to loan defaults (recently consolidated Mizuho Holdings alone is almost 2 trillion yen/$16.5 billion in the red), with nationalization being floated as a possible option by the ministerial appointee.

The cold, hard truth is that Japan cannot afford a defense budget that is geared toward cooperation in aggressive warfare (even the “less than 100 billion yen” for a sea-based missile defense), and this is the point I spoke out on during our local 18 January rally. The admirable social welfare system–affordable and accessible public day care, well-funded education, universal health care that includes excellent maternity leave benefits, the pension scheme–that at least provides for some semblance of equality in society would undoubtedly suffer (as it has in the US, I emphasized) were legislation like the War Contingency Act to become law. This is not to mention the public legitimacy that violence would gain; history textbook education about WWII is still woefully short on Japan as aggressor nation in Southeast Asia, but at least there is the message that glory and pride are not exclusively the domain of wartime victory.

Domestic Dissent and the Media

Meanwhile, opposition to the Act has come from voices formerly within the defense establishment. Last November Takeoka Katsumi, previously number three at the Self Defense Agency, spoke at the local Teacher’s Union Hall in Mishima. The hefty 80-year old stood as he declaimed for over one hour, pounding his mid-section from time to time for emphasis and lashing out against Koizumi and the idea that increased armamentaria leads to peace. Disputes with North Korea if handled intramurally between Japan and South Korea can be settled peaceably for the US often acts as exacerbating intermediary, he emphasized. Both he and his former colleague Maeda Hisao writing in Gunshuku (Disarmament Studies) have criticized the legislation as not only unconstitutional but also the means by which US armed forces would have greater autonomy within Japan, not to mention that the SDF would become its tool. The latter observations seem to have begun to be borne out already; at the 18 January rally photographs were shown of US troops walking public roads in full combat gear outside Gotemba Air Base 40 km north of Mishima and conferring with SDF troops, both prohibited by law.

Other progressive publications out strongly against the act include the independent weekly Shûkan Kinyôbi (This Week Friday) and Sekai (World). Composer Sakamoto Ryûichi penned a column in an issue of the latter alongside translations of statements by Norm Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Shûkan Kinyôbi last summer published reportage wizard Honda Katsuichi’s series on Iraq who on the heels of an extended foray into the United States (already published in book form as Has America Changed?) visited the bombed-out shelters of Baghdad and regional hospitals with patients, mostly children, sickened by depleted uranium poisoning. Honda, whose investigation into the “national shame” that was the Nanjing massacres has been translated into English, is a writer of singular bravery and humanity; he even suggests Iraqi schools were specifically targeted by the “smart bombs” of the US-led attack during Gulf War I.

Other more “mainstream” journalistic venues including the broadcast media have, although dominated most recently by North Korea, been pretty much toeing the party line, quiet about the horrors of war and tentatively drumming support for Koizumi and the American presence. The presence of the public broadcasting network NHK in this camp although not surprising is somewhat disquieting since it is generally known for its analytical rigor in political affairs. NHK did not even cover the 18 January demonstrations, nor did the Yomiuri Shinbun (articles appeared in other national dailies, the Asahi Shinbun, Mainichi Shinbun, and Tokyo Shinbun). Yomiuri even takes it upon itself to make sport of Saddam Hussein presenting not a photo but a drawn caricature alongside an article announcing his anti-smoking campaign and even refusing to grace is name with the honorific shi (slightly elevated form of “Mr.” following his name) as is usually done for national leaders. The use or non-use of this suffix often reveals attitudes of the writers towards the subject; Osama bin-Laden even received this tag following 9.11 but it was immediately upon commencement of the Afghan attack (although to its credit an evening edition contained a front page, not unsympathetic treatment with color photo of international volunteers in Iraq protesting military action).

Even DU has received scant media treatment despite Japan’s history of nuclear attack, with the notable exception of Tokyo Broadcasting System’s News 23. Last November saw a long segment on the increase of birth defects and other childhood diseases, and in an act of individual bravery the journalist applied a Geiger counter to the debris of destroyed tanks on the infamous Route One. News 23 is anchored by Chikushi Tetsuya and on the editorial board of Shûkan Kinyôbi mentioned above, and concluded the segment by concurring with the ground journalist that these weapons should be outlawed. News 23 it should be noted is a later news broadcast from 11pm to midnight. This past week DU was also covered in another post-midnight broadcast from a different station and so while it cannot be said that this issue has been totally ignored it still has not made it into prime-time.

This is not to say that the primacy or legitimacy of military action is not sometimes called into question–the very presence of Japanese ground journalists in and around Iraq always lends some credence to a preferred peaceful resolution–but there is worryingly little question from the majors concerning the motives of a potential action that could end as humanitarian nightmare; again News 23 can be considered an exception, and in one memorable moment during the special New Year’s show the architect Andô Tadao stated his opposition on humanitarian grounds (Andô is a trenchant critic of modern economic systems and submitted as a WTC “Ground Zero” monument an enormous, plain, grass-covered tumulus).

Outside the vacuous, baritonal musings of the prime-time news readers the “Why?” question begins to pop-up in the news magazine/commentary-type formats. Two other weekend shows from Tokyo Broadcasting–Saturday night’s Broadcaster and Sunday afternoon’s Jôhô Tokushû (Special Info) both featured dissenting voices that went beyond polite perplexity. The former included both a Japanese academic and the Tass Tokyo bureau chief condemning the twin-headed chimera of oil and imperialism, and the latter sought to investigate the nefarious ideological pairings of right-religious evangelicalism and Neo-conservatism that have culminated in the Project for the New American Century.

The Future Near and Far

Japan’s contribution to this action and future ones again rests on the passage of the War Contingency Act. Although the date the vote is to be set is still not clear–Koizumi could be biding his time and waiting for the US to commence their attack–but it is easy to see how the Act could be passed. With the main opposition Minshutô dazed and confused like its US namesake and plagued by recent defections, the smaller left parties including the Social Democrats and Communists not amounting to much in numbers, and the “great, baggy, faction-ridden” ruling Jimintô (Liberal Democratic Party) fronted by both a charismatic leader and Defense Minister willing to walk the walk in good standing with the major right-wing bloc, the Conservative (Hoshutô) and the Buddhist-nationalist Kômeitô Parties, anyone would be hard pressed to say that Koizumi and the White House will not get exactly what they want. Of course, domestic economic problems might dampen support and delay a vote, but that cannot erase the persistency of the current ideology, which may in future manifest in “upgrading” the Self-Defense Agency to Ministry status, and the allowing of US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in Yokosuka naval base once the Kitty Hawk is decommissioned.

Even without this Act de facto Japanese support for US military action exists simply by the presence of bases; the Yokosuka base is home of the Seventh Fleet and employs roughly 5,000 locals in construction and the service industries; closer to home in Gotemba high-altitude “training” overflights go from morning to night, and huge dual-prop helicopters make their sorties. The flights are especially obtrusive in cloudy weather which forces the C47 transports to buzz our mountain housing development. When I broach the subject to people not in the name of advocacy but just as a conversation topic the response generally is the same, whether an 18-year-old student in my class, a 50-something semi-employed truck driver with whom I was sharing a hot spring, or an ex-hippie contractor who repairs enlisted housing at Yokosuka: “What can you do about it? When you have a product you have to use it before it expires.”

Adam Lebowitz teaches at Nihon University and has lived in Japan for 12 years. For English translations of recent Japanese progressive writing Japan Focus can be accessed through Znet. He can be reached at:


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