Among its many casualties, the Gulf War can count Japan's growing confidence in itself as the emerging superpower of the 1990s. In contrast to its spectacular technical and economic successes, Japan's incompetent and hesitating response to the crisis has revealed profound shortcomings in its ability to act in ways befitting a world power.
Only last week, with the war over, did Japan's political and intellectual elites stop dithering and fulfill the nation's pledge for a $9-billion contribution to the allied cause. But the denouement of the country's six-month struggle over Gulf policy did little to remove the tarnish on Japan's image, particularly in Europe and the United States. According to one poll, Japan's weak response to the crisis has caused nearly one in three Americans to have "lost" respect for the island nation.
From the upper echelons of power to the man on the street, the Japanese have suddenly been made acutely aware of how timid they are in the face of the harsh realities of world politics. In such circumstances, even to imagine the co-equal role, with the United States, demanded by such ultra-nationalists as Shintaro Ishihara seems almost ludicrous.
The sad reality is that Japan reacted to the Gulf crisis in a manner more befitting a peripheral European neutral state, like Switzerland or Sweden, than the world's second-leading major economic power, one with critical trade links with the Middle East. To some extent, this can be explained by Japan's recent history of having lived under a virtual U.S. protectorate for 45 years. Like a tiger in a zoo accustomed to hand-feeding, Japan's survival instincts for the rough and tumble of geopolitics have atrophied almost beyond recognition. National security comes as easily as water or air.
"Japan has no experience of contributing to the international order. For Japanese, the concept (of) maintaining the world structure (is) something that comes from outsiders," says Taichi Sakaiya, a former top official with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. "For Japanese, the only reason we feel we should play a role in the crisis is our desire to gratify others."
Within Japan, this deferral of responsibility has been further fed by a widespread culture developed in the aftermath of the World War II debacle that treats peace itself as almost a religion--as an end in itself more important even than any concept of justice or fairness. At the height of the Gulf War, when the evil of Saddam Hussein's regime was patently clear--the Japanese remained the only people among leading industrial democracies to be opposed to the war.
For some, particularly members of parties out of power, firm opposition to the Gulf War was also based on legal, constitutional grounds. Japan's "Peace Constitution," drafted by U.S. occupation forces, "renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation." The legacy of the constitution, as well as the traditional Japanese penchant for seeking consensus, account for much of the government's delay in putting together and approving a Gulf aid package.
Even then, constitutional concerns forced the government to bar funds for guns or ammunition. Largely to appease pacifist sentiment, the Toshiki Kaifu administration was also forced to promise a simultaneous, largely symbolic cut in the defense budget.
For other Japanese, particularly leftist academics and trendy intellectuals, opposition to the allied effort presented a welcome opportunity to resurrect old antipathies toward the United States and the West.
Socialist Takako Doi paid a highly publicized cordial visit to Saddam Hussein just before the outbreak of war in January, thereby helping to foster the impression that Iraq's stubborn opposition to allied demands represented, at least in part, an Asian nationalists' understandable response to "Western" or Euro-American imperialism.
But such sentiments were not only restricted to Japan's left-leaning press and academic elite. Even such Establishment figures as Kimindo Kuska, head of the Tokyo-based Softnomics Center and a key adviser to Japan's long-term Credit Bank, readily admits his "admiration" for Hussein and wishes Japan would refrain completely from supporting the allied effort.
Reflecting a widespread opinion among Japanese, Kusaka self-righteously reminds listeners that Japan did not arm Hussein. He ignores the fact that Tokyo provided the Iraqi president with his largest source of financial assistance next to the Soviet Union. U.S. intervention in the Gulf, he insists, turned a "small fire burning in a carpet" into a "large fire," which Japan had no obligation to help put out. Like the well-fed tiger in the zoo, Kusaka asserts Japan's billions could protect it from the depredations of Hussein or any similarly bloody-minded marauder.
"When it comes to spending money, we are better than the Americans. If you let us spend our money, we can protect ourselves by spending money," Kusaka insists. "We are much wiser in doing this than Kuwait."
Such attitudes reveal the extent to which many Japanese are cut off from both the brutal realities of world politics and the responsibilities of global power. Some Japanese, for example, continue to focus not on issues raised by the war but on such concerns as fear of a possible new outbreak of "Japan-bashing" in the United States, or how Japan's faintheartedness may lead to its possible exclusion from the expected postwar reconstruction boom in the Gulf.
"The sad part is we still don't see the crisis in the least," says author Sakaiya. "The real issues are still if a Japanese loses a contract or a life in the war. We were only interested when there were Japanese hostages--and even then the second issue was what company did you work for. If it's not your company, it's not so important."
Yet such brutal soul-searching about Japan's Gulf War behavior could yield positive benefits. By raising the issue of its proper role in the new world order, the war might at last set off a long-overdue reassessment of Japan's geopolitical mission and vision.
In the short term, however, the best the United States and its European allies can expect from Japan will be the financial contributions pledged by Prime Minister Kaifu and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. If it delivers, Japan can at least hope to maintain its position within the elite "club" of advanced nations, though most assuredly from now on, the membership fee will be going up.