Japan’s Dilemma: Adopt or Abandon Climate Treaty?


An old joke has it that Japanese diplomats always look left and right before they look ahead. In a nation where consensus is paramount and groups provide comfort and protection, taking a controversial stance on international affairs doesn’t come naturally.

In recent weeks, however, Japan has found itself under growing pressure to do just that.

Despite spending years in a comfortable, behind-the-scenes role building support for the high-profile Kyoto Protocol on global warming--named after the Japanese city where it was negotiated--this nation suddenly finds itself in the spotlight, with a swing vote on whether the agreement will be born or stillborn.

If Japan decides to ratify the deal, it risks alienating its hugely important ally, the United States, which has declared its opposition. If it votes not to ratify, it faces international criticism for killing the agreement, abandoning its principles and undercutting global cooperation, even as it alienates Europe.


Faced with such a dilemma, Japan’s position has been studiously ambiguous. The odds-on-betting, however, is that it will ultimately side with Washington.

Analysts say Tokyo is simply not willing to jeopardize security, political and cultural ties with the U.S., particularly at a time when the government of new Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi needs Washington’s help in restructuring the Japanese economy.

“Japan has never been independent of the U.S. in its foreign policy since World War II. It often acts like the 51st or 52nd state,” said Yasuhiko Yoshida, professor of international relations at Saitama University. “The Japanese government has no intention of ratifying” the accord without a U.S. change of heart.

The Kyoto Protocol commits signatories to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases, based on 1990 levels. In order to go into effect, the protocol must be ratified by at least 55 industrialized nations that together are responsible for at least 55% of emissions produced by the industrialized world. The U.S. share of emissions is slightly more than 36%. The European Union produces 24.2% and Japan 8.5%.


Signatories then must pass domestic legislation to implement their commitments.

The EU, a strong supporter of the pact, has heavily lobbied the Japanese in recent weeks to go ahead without the Americans. The European alliance, combined with Japan and other advocates, could put the deal over the top.

Adding to Japan’s discomfort is its shifting domestic ground. Once President Bush termed the pact “fatally flawed” in March, Japan’s carefully crafted consensus in support of the protocol came unhinged. Now, the Environment Ministry generally favors ratification, many pro-U.S. members of the Foreign Ministry oppose it, and the Trade Ministry takes a more equivocal line reflecting the mix of potential winners and losers among industries it represents. Keidanren, the influential business umbrella group, is also raising more objections these days.

“The old industries within Keidanren, like steel, are still very strong, so the group is quite reluctant,” said Itaru Yasui, an environmental and material science professor at Tokyo University.

Today, a delegation led by Environment Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi arrives in Washington on the stated mission of changing the Bush administration’s stance. Officials close to the government say Japanese negotiators will focus on three areas of potential common ground: greater participation in the accord by developing nations, further use of market mechanisms and a discussion of scientific cooperation and technology transfers.

But most observers, and privately many government officials, say these are unlikely to sway Washington. Bush has taken a strong stand, and the administration includes several former oil industry executives sympathetic to the arguments of business. Rather, analysts say, the trip is aimed at convincing the Japanese public that their government is doing all it can to salvage a deal.

“Once the president of the United States says something, he’ll usually stick to it,” said Shuzo Nishioka, climate project leader with the Tokyo-based Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. “I’m not so optimistic.”

Japanese officials rightfully say there’s still time to convince the U.S. of the merits of a turnaround. That said, the window is closing if there’s any hope of ratifying the protocol and passing implementing legislation by the 2002 deadline. The officials, meanwhile, refuse to say how long they’ll wait or what they’ll do if they can’t persuade the U.S. to change its mind.


“Of course we can’t wait forever,” said Umetaro Nagao, deputy director-general with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. “However, the most important thing is to have unified international involvement.”

A meeting in Germany next week provides a slim hope that some compromise can be reached. “But there’s growing recognition among the parties that it might not be possible to finalize anything in Bonn,” said Hironori Hamanaka, vice minister at the Environment Ministry. A key global warming meeting in Morocco in October is seen as a more realistic deadline.

Koizumi is a reformist prime minister famous for speaking clearly and making straight-forward decisions, a relative rarity in Japan. He could surprise pundits and throw his support behind ratification, even without Washington.

Such a move could win him political points. He has come under fire from opposition candidates for waffling on this issue, and most Japanese are strongly pro-environment.

In front of parliament this week, a ragtag band of ministers, homemakers and students read poems, wore Bush masks made of toilet paper and waved banners in favor of early ratification. “Koizumi, what will you do if you can’t persuade the Americans?” asked one sign. “America, let’s cooperate,” read another.

Yet Koizumi’s cozy summit at Camp David with Bush last month suggested that he won’t defy Washington. During a photo opportunity, Koizumi praised Bush as someone “enthusiastic about environmental issues.”

Furthermore, political analysts say most Japanese voters are far more concerned with the weak economy than environmental issues--particularly those that cost jobs--and won’t penalize Koizumi much in parliamentary elections this month for a graceful retreat.

Still, some Japanese environmentalists say Japan and the world’s other industrialized nations have lost sight of what’s really important as they jockey, raise their points of order, debate diplomatic subtleties and maneuver for position.


“The Earth is in critical condition,” said Mariko Miyata, a 50-year-old homemaker and mother. “I’m very worried, and we’re running out of time. If we’re not careful, there will be no future and we could end up killing future generations.”