One week before UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s visit to Japan this February, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi declared it crucial for Japan to show the United States what a “trustworthy ally” it was. After all, he commented, if ever Japan were to come under attack, it would be the U.S., not the UN or any other country that would come to its aid. No further elaboration of his reference to a possible attack was needed. All Japanese knew that he was referring to North Korea. When Japan declared support for the US-led war on Iraq in March 2003, and when Japanese forces were sent to southern Iraq to aid in the occupation the following January, it was not the Sunnis or Shiites of Iraq who were in Japanese sights but North Korea, a country on which its national fears and hatred had in recent years been sharply focused.
Given its continuing psychological distance from its continental neighbors, Koizumi’s Japan sees no option but to cling to the now sixty year-old American embrace, a stance that only emboldens the U.S. to squeeze harder, further blocking it from reconciliation and cooperation with Asia. “I believe President Bush is right and he is a good man,” Koizumi told the Diet on November 25, 2003. Because he is one of a handful of world leaders for whom George Bush displays personal warmth, he seems especially vulnerable to “friendly” requests. Although Japan‘s economy is roughly equal to those of Germany, France, and Britain combined, the prime minister would never risk offending Washington by taking a “French” or “German” stance on major issues. It may even be true to say that nowhere in the world does the Bush administration have a more faithful follower than the Japanese Prime Minister.
After the attacks of September 11th, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage bluntly advised Japan to pull its head out of the sand and make sure the Rising Sun flag was visible in the Afghanistan war, advice Koizumi promptly took to heart. Despite being a country with a pacifist constitution and no prior involvement in any Middle Eastern conflict, Japan sent a substantial part of its Maritime Self Defense Forces (aka: its navy), including an Aegis-class destroyer, to the Indian Ocean to aid and refuel the allied forces.
Then, in March 2003, on the eve of war, Koizumi promised his “unconditional” support for the invasion of Iraq. Pressed to translate that support into “boots on the ground,” Koizumi subsequently agreed to supply troops as well. In January 2004, the advance guard of Japan‘s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) flew off.
For the first time in 60 years, Japan had committed itself, albeit in a subordinate and officially “non-combat” role, to an illegal and aggressive war. Few recent votes have been taken in Japan‘s Diet under such controversial circumstances. As the Diet convened at the end of January to ratify the dispatching of troops to Iraq, the opposition boycotted the vote en masse, insisting it was unconstitutional, and even several heavyweights from the prime minister’s own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) absented themselves. One former conservative minister took the government to court to have its actions declared unconstitutional, and a senior Japanese ambassador was recalled and sacked for questioning Koizumi’s policies. When David Kay, head of the American Iraq Survey Group searching that country for weapons of mass destruction, concluded before a U.S. congressional committee that it was “highly unlikely” any such weapons existed, Koizumi never faltered. For him, “trustworthiness” to Washington seemed to outweigh Japan‘s constitution, the law, or morality.
The constraint on Japan‘s possession or use of armed force, the famed Article 9 in the country’s postwar constitution, written during the American occupation of the country, is now given short shrift in the West. In Asian capitals, however, it is seen as a key element in the post-war regional security system. The domestic mood of hostility and fear towards North Korea, and the U.S. pressure for “boots on the ground” in Iraq combined to present Koizumi with the perfect opportunity to set aside half a century of constitutional principle and transform the SDF into a regular army.
Although his decision to send the SDF to Iraq was taken in the teeth of strong popular opposition, within a matter of months he was able to release a flood of patriotic sentiment that would overwhelm constitutional qualms and turn public opinion around. Where opposition to any dispatch of troops in early to mid-2003 was running at 70 to 80 per cent, by early 2004 a small majority (53 per cent) was in favor. Koizumi’s gamble had paid off, at least in the short run. His task was made that much easier by the way it was reported in the United States and to some extent in Europe as well: Japan was being “realistic,” “assuming its global responsibilities,” shedding its “hypocritical moralism,” behaving as a “true partner” of the U.S. Koizumi found himself basking in domestic and international approval.
As the US economy strains under the weight of the chronic deficits and growing burden of administering its global empire, Tokyo‘s aid grows in importance. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has contributed a staggering sum in subsidies for imperial America, including more than $70 billion in “support costs” for the American bases in Japan (especially on the island of Okinawa) and another $90 billion in post September 11 “rear support” for the anti-terror coalition.
When Washington demanded additional “billions” for rebuilding Iraq, Koizumi promised $5 billion, far in excess of the amounts pledged by any other ally. Under ever greater pressure from Washington the Japanese government indicated its readiness to forego the recovery of a large part of the vast debt, somewhere between $3 billion and $7 billion, owed it by the government of Iraq.
A similar Japanese cooperativeness was evident in massive bureaucratic interventions in global currency markets to try to prevent the value of the dollar from sliding or the yen from appreciating. During 2003 the Bank of Japan poured 20 trillion yen ($180 billion) into the task of propping up the dollar, and thereby the U.S. economy. In 2004, the process only accelerated, half of that sum going into the markets in the first two months of the year alone. As foreign demand weakened for U.S. Treasuries, bonds, and stocks, the Bank of Japan strove mightily to hold the line. Early in 2004, the International Monetary Fund noted that, with its foreign debt levels heading towards 40% of GDP, the U.S. deficit was “a significant risk” for the world, but nowhere did confidence in it remain greater, or readiness to support it stronger than in Tokyo.
It is not that Japan has funds to spare. The excess liquidity it had in the bubble era of the 1980s has long since evaporated. It faces the prospect of large government spending cuts and tax increases, the collapse of its current public welfare and pension systems, and a steadily aging population. The budget for 2004 projects tax revenues of just under 42 trillion yen and expenditures of 82 trillion yen: in other words nearly half would be dependent on bonds or borrowing. Education, welfare, and overseas aid costs are being shaved and small and medium-sized businesses cut loose to fend with “market forces” by themselves. In response to the mountain of debt that has accumulated since the end of the bubble era, a mere mouse of growth has been born.
For that matter, the governments of both the United States and Japan are prodigiously in debt, each for approximately the same amount, roughly $7 trillion. The U.S. population and economy being more than double those of Japan, the Japanese problem is far more serious. Japan‘s debt problem is perhaps the worst in modern history. The pathology of the Japanese system, half-hidden under the “reformism” Koizumi has proclaimed and publicized, remains intact.
Japanese savings thus become a major fund subsidizing America‘s global imperial stance and, at the same time, the primary source of finance for U.S. debt, supporting the consumption patterns, lifestyles, and military designs of the global hyperpower. The world system balances precariously on the twin peaks of US and Japanese debt, with the terminally ill Japanese economy taking every possible step to prop up the seriously ailing U.S. economy.
Japan in 2003-4 made a series of historic choices. Casting its lot with the Bush administration, it sent its armed forces to support American operations in an explosive part of the world in whose historic disputes it hitherto had no role and where it faced no enemies. Watching the Japanese scramble to comply with various cascading American demands, Deputy Secretary Armitage remarked that his government was “thrilled” Japan was not “sitting in the stands any more” but had come out as “a player on the playing field.”
The American pressures are relentless. Proconsuls from Washington regularly fly into Tokyo with new instructions. Japan is called upon (in the words of the “Armitage Report” of October 2000) to revise its constitution, to expand its defense horizon in order to support “coalition” operations as a fully-fledged NATO-style partner, and to become the “Britain of the Far East.” While the relationship is conventionally represented simply as one of U.S. “protection” for Japan, from Washington‘s perspective the emphasis is actually somewhat different. For the Bush administration, what remains fundamental and vital is that Japan “continue to rely on US protection.” Any attempt to substitute for that “protection” an entente with China and a degree of independence would, in the words of a RAND corporation report, “deal a fatal blow to U.S. political and military influence in East Asia.” The thought that Japan might one day begin to “walk its own walk,” intent on becoming not the Britain but the Japan of the Far East is an inside-the-Beltway nightmare comparable to, if not worse than, the assaults of September 11.
If, for the time being, Japan has indeed become a “player” in the American game, there can be no mistaking who the captain and coach of the team is, and no doubting the deadly seriousness of the game. Asked about Japan‘s position as war with Iraq loomed in February 2003, the head of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, Kyuma Fumio, said, “I think [Japan] has no choice. After all, it is like an American state.” Sooner or later, Koizumi and his government must understand that a price will have to be paid for their commitments. Armitage made that quite clear, though in terms of Australia not Japan, back in September 2001. Speaking to an Australian audience, he suggested that what he meant by “alliance” was a relationship in which “Australian sons and daughters â€¦ would be willing to die to help defend the United States. That’s what an alliance means.” Armitage, or for that matter Koizumi, has yet to spell out a Japanese version of that bottom line. But after the boots and the billions, will certainly come the calls for blood.
In February 2004, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited Tokyo and addressed the Diet. For Annan, whose authority had been defied by the Anglo-American attack on Iraq and who was just then involved in complex negotiations to restore some of it in Iraq, the year had been full of trials. Annan praised Japan, which contributes 20% of UN budgets but has no seat on the Security Council, for its global citizenship. Without uttering a word of criticism of Koizumi’s policies, he nonetheless managed to call into question the Koizumi agenda and appeal over the prime minister’s head to the Japanese public to play a more independent, internationalist role in world affairs.
So long as Japan‘s “North Korea problem” remains unresolved, its dependence on the U.S. will continue. Put differently, if relations between Japan and North Korea, as well as between North and South Korea, ever began to be normalized and the tension drained from them, the comprehensive incorporation of Japan within the American hegemonic project would be difficult to justify. If peace broke out in East Asia the justification for the American military presence in either South Korea or Japan would be difficult to sustain. Japan might then be able to turn its attention towards its Asian neighbors, and to shift its policy priority from being a “trustworthy ally” to the United States to being a trustworthy member of a future Asian commonwealth. In the meantime, the Japanese public waits nervously, wondering how long it will be before a price in blood has to be paid for Koizumi’s decision to extend Japan‘s “self-defense” line to southern Iraq.
Gavan McCormack is the author of the just-published Target North Korea (Nation Books). A professor at Australian National University in Canberra, he is currently a visiting professor at International Christian University in Tokyo and has written numerous studies of modern East Asian history and politics.
Copyright C2004 Gavan McCormack
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]