"Pacifist" Japan and the Occupation of Iraq

Joseph C. Wilson’s op-ed in the New York Times (“What I Didn’t Find in Africa” will probably further damage the Bush presidency. I was wondering when the “unnamed former diplomat to an African country,” sent in February 2002 to check out the Niger uranium story for the CIA, was going to speak out and complain that the neocons deliberately ignored or suppressed the info he gathered in Niger. Now he has done so, declaring that “some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” I look forward to seeing Mr. Wilson, on live television, before a Congressional committee, interrogated about this episode.

Meanwhile key invasion allies—including Tony Blair, Australia’s John Howard, Denmark’s Anders Fogh Rasmussen (AP, May 30) and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar—are feeling the heat from their peoples and legislatures about their own statements echoing those of the Bush administration before the war. Everyone’s asking, “Where are the WMDs?” and “Did you lie to us?” May there be scores of investigations, simultaneously, in half a dozen countries, each influencing the others.

Now Koizumi Junichir, Japan’s prime minister, is coming under attack as well. (Nikkei Online, July 1: “Iraq WMD Impass Tests Legitimacy of Japan’s Stand“). On March 20, as the Anglo-American invasion attack began, he stated: “Unfortunately, throughout this period, Iraq did not heed the warnings from the United Nations, or thought lightly of them; it mocked the United Nations. Iraq did not show a sincere attitude. Due to this, I understand and support the start of the use of military force [against Iraq] by the United States. I am aware that an overwhelming majority of Japanese people oppose a war. If I have to choose between peace and war, there’s no doubt I go for peace. I myself hate war. But I have made a decision because supporting the U.S. position supports Japan’s national interests (AFP and Radio Free Europe).” Koizumi did exactly as his predecessors back to September 1945 have done: thoroughly wedding Japanese to American foreign policy, he echoed automatically the U.S. rationale for its actions. In doing so he made himself very vulnerable to an electorate that has repeatedly destroyed political leaders tainted by scandal, and increasingly frightened by an America perceived as both irrational and bullying.

Koizumi repeatedly expressed confidence in Washington’s view that Iraq threatened the international community with weapons of mass destruction. On February 20 he issued a statement strongly supporting the U.S. position of Iraq, and vowing to aid the U.S. if force were eventually required to disarm the country in accordance with U.N. disarmament resolutions. That produced an urgent thank-you message to Koizumi and Foreign Minister Kawaguchi from Secretary of State Powell. On March 20, Koizumi spoke of a global “strong consciousness of the threat of weapons of mass destruction, not only against the American people, but also against the rest of the world, including the Japanese people. How to rid the world of such weapons of mass destruction is now a major challenge for the international community and will continue to be in the future. President Bush has said that the U.S. is seeking to disarm Iraq and to liberate the Iraqi people. I agree with that strategy. Japan, too, supports the policy course of President Bush.”

These days the Japanese public and even top leaders in Koizumi’s own Liberal Democratic Party are questioning the rationale of the war, to which the government lent political and moral, if not much physical, support. They do so as the LDP and its rivals in the Diet debate a bill to send Japanese military forces into Iraq on a “peacekeeping” mission. This is extremely significant, because Japan has a no-war constitution, and there are factions within the LDP (which has led Japan with little interruption since 1955) hell-bent upon building up Japan’s military, and ultimately amending the current constitution to make Japan a more “normal” (imperialist, military-deploying) nation. The overblown crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program plays into the hands of these factions. Koizumi recently told the Diet that Japan would not stand by if another country was preparing to attack it: “We could not just let the Japanese people be harmed by doing nothing.” He implies the creation of a Japanese doctrine of “pre-emption,” and since that would require Japan to trash its current constitution and probably acquire nukes (which it could do, as one LDP heavy put it last year, “tomorrow”), the world should take note.


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During the 1990-91 academic year, I was living in Japan, doing research at the University of Osaka. I was there during the months of clamor about Saddam Hussein (the “new Hitler”) whose troops were so cruel that they ripped prematurely born babies from life-support systems in Kuwaiti hospitals. (The hospital story was later discredited.) I was there as American senators and congressional representatives, responding more than anything else to a climate of trade friction produced by the popularity of Japanese automobiles in the U.S., demanded that Japan pay more for its defense and offer concrete assistance to Operation Desert Storm. When a U.S. politician threatened a U.S. withdrawal of troops from Japan if Japan was uncooperative, a senior defense officer was actually quoted in the press as saying something like, “We never asked them to stay here. If they decide to go, we’ll just say, ‘Goodbye.'” Japanese generally opposed the U.S. rush to war; about 80% remained opposed up to the attack in January 1991. U.S. government spokespersons emphasized that Japanese should support military action, since they was far more dependent upon Middle Eastern oil than the U.S. “We’re doing this for you,” went the message, “so show your appreciation!” But a Japanese Energy Ministry official replied blandly, “In our experience, those who have oil want to sell it.” (That is to say, even if Iraq incorporated Kuwait into its territory, it wouldn’t affect Japan’s oil supply or national security.) Then prime minister Kaifu Toshiki, however, like all the other postwar Japanese prime ministers, obediently endorsed U.S. foreign policy.

But there was never any question of Japanese military forces joining the multinational force arrayed against Saddam. That would plainly violate the Japanese Constitution in effect since 1947. Article 9 of that document reads in full: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. 2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” It was an unequivocal statement of pacifism, unique in national constitutions, crafted not by Japanese but by American staffers working under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allies in the Pacific and chief of the “Allied” occupation of Japan. Translated into awkward Japanese, it was presented to the Diet, and passed with few alterations in 1947. It has never been amended.

This pacifist Constitution was a product of the first phase of the Occupation, in which the American officials sought to effect demobilization and democratization. The first was achieved, quickly and efficiently as Japanese troops returned from the continent, were debriefed, deloused and decommissioned. (The second took the form of limited freedoms of press, assembly, association, and religion; legal equality of women; massive land reform; liberalization of labor law, etc.) Those accused of war crimes were arrested, tried, and in some instances, executed. Occupation forces regarded Japan’s wartime leadership as “militarist,” although some called it “fascist” as well and may have felt these terms interchangeable. They had a general feeling that Japan’s military (samurai) heritage was a particularly dangerous phenomenon; therefore, why should Japan maintain an army and navy at all? The Americans anticipated that China, under Chiang Kaishek, would be the principle U.S. ally in postwar East Asia. China would flourish, while Japan would retreat back into agrarian life while paying reparations to wartime victims.

But the U.S. officials underestimated the strength of the Communist movement in China. In October, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, adding a quarter of humanity to the Soviet bloc. Chiang Kaishek had fled to Taiwan. As Americans debated “Who lost China?” it was clear that China would not become the great East Asian ally after all. It would be necessary to contain revolutionary China by encircling it with U.S. bases and pro-U.S. regimes in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Vietnam, etc. Of these, Japan was by far the most advanced industrially, and the most promising as a regional anticommunist partner. Earlier in 1949, NATO had been formed specifically to defend western Europe against the posited Soviet threat. Immediately thereafter, the Soviet Union had conducted its first nuclear test. The Cold War was well underway, and inevitably superpower rivalry determined Japan’s fate.

In June 1950 war broke out on the Korean peninsula, continuing to the armistice signed in July 1953. During the war, Japanese firms serviced the U.S. military in innumerable ways, from providing “rest and recreation” to vehicle repair, even the manufacture of napalm. Such transactions were called special procurements, and those linked to the war were largely responsible for returning Japan’s GDP by 1953 to the 1937 level. Postwar Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru called the procurements “manna from heaven.” But weren’t they a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of Article Nine of the Constitution?

Meanwhile Occupation officials rethought many aspects of the U.S.-Japan relationship. While they had purged the prewar elite of many that had ties to the military, right-wing organizations, or zaibatsu (“financial cliques” like Mitsui, Sumitomo and Mitsubishi, which combined banks, heavy industries, shipping lines, wholesale operations, etc.), they now began to rehabilitate many who had been purged earlier. The former corporate elite were natural allies of an Occupation bent on the rapid rehabilitation of Japanese industry. Plans to dismantle dozens of zaibatsu were abandoned. From early 1950 MacArthur began a “Red Purge,” removing over 12,000 suspected members of the Japan Communist Party from government jobs (including education) and public positions. He banned the popular party newspaper, Akahata (Red Flag) and outlawed general strikes. Yoshida, prime minister off and on from May 1946 to December 1954, was a staunch anticommunist and applauded the occupiers’ change of attitude.

Some historians refer to this retreat from progressive reform as the “Reverse Course.” It entails a number of flip-flops, like on the question of a Japanese military. Article 9 notwithstanding, Japan does in fact maintain very substantial land, sea, and air forces, in apparent violation of the fundamental law of the land. (Citizens have filed suit opposing the constitutionality of the SDF, but the Supreme Court refuses to hear the case, saying that it is a “political issue” beyond their jurisdiction.) Japan now spends about $ 40 billion a year on its military (compare 32 billion for the U.K., 39 billion Germany, 47 billion France) and pays to maintain the 47,000 U.S. forces in the country. MacArthur had ruled a military out in the Constitution of 1947, but in 1950, the Occupation established a “National Police Reserve” to replace U.S. military police relocated to Korea. In 1954, as Eisenhower’s vice-president Richard Nixon was personally pushing for the Japanese to reconstitute an army, this reserve became the “Self-Defense Force.” So the U.S. shifted attention from social, political and economic reform in Japan to economic recovery organized mainly by the prewar corporate elite, and greater self-defense capability under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Article 9 had become an irritant. The U.S. now wanted a strong, allied Japanese military.

Ironically, the U.S.-dictated Constitution’s staunchest supporters were and are the members of the Japan Communist Party (JCP), who see Article 9 as sacrosanct, and also value Article 14 that bans discrimination on the basis of “race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.” The Communists (I use the term broadly; the JCP is anything but a Marxist-Leninist party, while the left broadly conceived includes some real revolutionaries) link constitutional revision in general to militarists within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (a collection of factions rather than a party, and neither liberal nor democratic) who want Japan to return to the status of a “normal country.” That means having a military the Japanese can proudly acknowledge without using such euphemisms as “Self-Defense Force” (for the world’s sixth or seventh largest military). The left observes that members of the LDP have gradually expanded the role of the SDF in violation of Article 9.

In 1957 the cabinet of Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke adopted the Basic Policy for National Defense, according to which, Japan’s security is best achieved by supporting the United Nations and promoting international cooperation, by stabilizing domestic affairs and enhancing public welfare, by gradually developing an effective self-defense capability, and by dealing with external aggression on the basis of Japan-United States security arrangements, until the UN can act effectively. This clearly stated Japan’s intention to expand its military while emphasizing a commitment to the United Nations, and an even stronger bond to the United States. (With the U.S. alternately courting the U.N. and treating it with disdain—as when it refused to legitimate the Anglo-American attack, for reasons that make good sense 10 weeks since Bush proclaimed victory in Iraq—it may be more difficult for Japan to reconcile its commitments to the U.N. and to the U.S.)

For the next 30 years the value of the one percent of the GDP assigned to military spending gradually increased; the “miracle” postwar economy grew spectacularly into the 1980s. In January 1987 Nakasone Yasuhiro announced that the military budget for fiscal 1987 would be slightly over the customary figure. (It would be 1.004%.) Nakasone since coming to office in late 1982 had been pressured by U.S. officials to expand Japan’s military capability. During his first state visit to the United States, he spoke before Congress and pronounced Japan “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the service of the Reagan administration. The statement provoked a storm of controversy in Japan. So did Nakasone’s official visit (as prime minister), in 1985, to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, dedicated to Japan’s war dead, where 14 Class-A war criminals are among those enshrined. Many felt that Nakasone was testing the waters with such actions, determining how much the public would view military expansion positively. The tiny percentage budget increase in 1987 was not the issue; the issue, rather, was the very existence of the SDF and its gradual enhancement, beginning with incremental symbolic steps. (Within a year, over 80% of those polled accepted the Nakasone budget.)

For the Persian Gulf War (Wangan sens_ in Japanese) the first President Bush needed to organize a large coalition, including such past adversaries as Syria. He asked for help from Japan as well, receiving in the end no troops but a handsome check for $ 13 billion. Some criticized such “checkbook diplomacy” in lieu of military assistance as a national embarrassment; this became an argument for “normalizing” the status of the Japanese military, or at least clarifying under what circumstances SDF personnel might serve abroad. The U.N. Peacekeeping Support Law passed in June 1992 provides this clarification. Five conditions must be met before Japan dispatches troops. (1) There must be a viable cease-fire agreement; (2) the conflicting parties must give their consent to U.N. peacekeeping operations; (3) these operations must be impartial; (4) Japan may withdraw its peacekeeping unit immediately if the previous three conditions break down; and (5) SDF personnel may use small arms only in self-defense.

Since the Diet passed the law, Japanese Self-Defense Forces have served in U.N. peacekeeping operations in Mozambique, Zaire, Rwanda, Angola, the Golan Heights, Cambodia and East Timor. Most deployments have been small, and partly symbolic; there are just 45 Japanese troops on the Golan Heights. But Japan sent almost 600 to Cambodia (1992) and 680 to East Timor last March. Currently around 80% of Japanese polled support these “peace-keeping operations” (PKO). Meanwhile, the Japanese Navy routinely shows the Rising Sun flag from a small fleet cruising the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. In April 1991, the government of Miyazawa Kiichi sent mine sweepers into the Persian Gulf for six months to deactivate mines threatening international shipping. State Department press director Mark Dillen welcomed Japanese participation “in this important international effort,” which required special legislation and encountered significant domestic opposition. Since late 2001, Japanese naval vessels have refueled American ships in the area.

In November 2001, the Kurama (a 5,200-ton destroyer); the Kirisame (a 4,550-ton destroyer); and the Hamana (an 8,100-ton fleet support ship) left Sasebo Naval Base on Kyushu for the Indian Ocean, where they were “to provide non-combat support to the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan.” A retired Japanese admiral noted at the time, “In practical terms, the Americans can do without the Japanese navy. But the [Japanese] flag is very important morally. If US sailors see the Japanese flag they’ll receive a lot of encouragement.” That same month, the Japanese cabinet finalized a law authorizing the Self-Defense Force to operate in more non-combat roles, including intelligence gathering and transport of supplies, to assist the “anti-terror coalition” in Afghanistan (CNN, Nov. 9, 2001).

In December 2002, as the Bush administration firmed up its plans for an attack on Iraq, the 7,250-ton destroyer Kirishima, equipped with a high-tech Aegis missile detection system, left its home base of Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, riot police lining the shore, its crew of 250 bound for the Gulf. Knight Ridder Newspapers called this “a symbolic victory for the Bush administration and its war on terrorism,” since it brought so significant a power on board the ongoing U.S. project in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Ambassador Howard H. Baker had proposed, in October, that Japan deploy an Aegis destroyer in the “war on terrorism,” declaring, “If you care enough, you send the very best.” Only the U.S., Spain and Japan possess the Aegis system.) But at the time, an Asahi Shinbun newspaper poll showed 57 percent of respondents opposing cooperation with U.S. military action against Baghdad. Only 40 percent supported the dispatch of the Aegis-equipped destroyer; 48 percent were opposed (CNN Dec. 16, 2002).

In Japan, the deployment was depicted as an effort to show support for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. “The Koizumi government,” according to the Knight Ridder article, “denied there was any connection between Wednesday’s announcement and the possibility of an American-led campaign against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.” Now, of course, the connection is entirely clear. And we hear too, that SDF will be sent as “peacekeepers” to Iraq—validating the Anglo-American war and occupation. On July 4 the Lower House of the Diet passed a bill, expected to be confirmed by the Upper House later this month, that allows the use of the Japanese Self-Defense Force to help “rebuild” Iraq. Prime Minister Koizumi has promised the U.S. that he’ll provide about 1000 troops by October to carry out such tasks as water supply, transport, and rebuilding infrastructure (AP, July 5). But as noted in a Reuters report July 4: “Critics, including some ruling party heavyweights, have raised their voice against the plan, saying it would violate the 1947 constitution” Two powerful figures in Koizumi’s own Liberal Democratic Party walked out of the Diet deliberations protesting the body’s failure to require named ballots for the vote on “peacekeepers” in Iraq. They questioned the prime minister’s promise that Japanese troops will only be sent to regions of Iraq “free of military conflict,” and indeed, doubt whether there even are such areas. Okada Katsuya, senior legislator in the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), calls the bill “reckless.” “With no way to distinguish combat zones from noncombat zones, there is every possibility the Self-Defense Force will end up in the fighting in violation of the constitution.” But maybe that’s the whole point.


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Not once since 1945 has there been a significant dispute pertaining to foreign policy between Japan and the United States. Japan established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China several years before the United States, but with U.S. approval. Japan has been the loyalist of allies, and in this as in quite a number of respects, the “Britain of the East.” Except on bilateral trade issues, the governments just don’t disagree; Washington takes this for granted. Still, Japanese public opinion was 80% against the U.S. attack on Iraq as of March, and ongoing reports from Iraq confirm to many that the war was a very bad idea. This doesn’t bode well for Koizumi. The president of the DJP, Kan Naoto, has stated that if WMDs are not found in Iraq, “it means [Koizumi] misled the public“.

The question is, will the new Japanese militarists, with appreciative support from the neocons, successfully capitalize on the new world disorder produced by Bushite unilateralism and preemptive imperialism to chuck MacArthur’s no-war constitution so warmly embraced by the Japanese left, and instead build momentum to a constitutional amendment clearly validating the Japanese military? Or will the Japanese people recognize that unquestioning support of the dominant imperialist power, and return to military “normality” as a nation, will only in the long run damage their own status in an increasingly bloody, militaristic world?

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor in the Department of History at Tufts University and coordinator of the Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu