Iraq Deployment Shows the East German Syndrome
by Tim Shorrock
December 18, 2003

Four years ago, the author and critic Chalmers Johnson wrote a prescient book about U.S. foreign policy that unfavorably compared Japan's postwar prime ministers to the East German leaders Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker.

"Just as the two satraps of the German Democratic Republic faithfully followed every order they ever received from Moscow, each and every Japanese prime minister, as soon as he comes into office, get on an air plane and reports to Washington," Johnson wrote.

Those words stung in Tokyo, largely because they were true. Since World War II, Japan has played a subservient role to the United States in foreign policy on nearly every issue to come its way. Its servile role has often been embarrassing, and frequently left many observers with the impression that Japan was no more than a bit player to its master in Washington.

In 1972, for example, US President Richard Nixon gave Prime Minister Eisaku Sato just a few minutes notice before announcing to the world that he was recognizing the People's Republic of China as the official representative of China. Nixon's "shock" reversed years of official policy that Japanese diplomats and businessmen had been dreaming about for decades, and reportedly brought Sato to tears.

Nearly 10 years later, former US Ambassador Edwin Reischauer confessed in an offhand interview that US warships had been routinely bringing nuclear weapons into Japanese ports and territorial waters since 1960 with the full knowledge of Japanese leaders, thus violating Japan's antinuclear stance.

Now, nearly four years into the 21st century and more than a decade after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the relationship between the United States and Japan that was forged in the early days of the Cold War does not seem to have changed much at all.

In fact, as the two nations celebrated the 50th anniversary of the US-Japan Security Treaty in November, Japanese leaders appeared to be bent on deepening their reliance on the United States, seemingly without any national debate about whether a close military alliance with the United States is in Japan's best interest or not.

The best example of Japan's willingness to do the United States' bidding is the Middle East, where the cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi agreed last week to deploy 1,000 soldiers from Japan's Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to Iraq at Washington's request.

Koizumi's dispatch of the SDF, which comes in the aftermath of the killing of two Japanese diplomats in Iraq, marks the largest overseas deployment of Japanese troops since the Second World War.

But this significant turn in Japanese policy would never have taken place if President Bush had not reversed two centuries of US policy with his unilateralist, preemptive strike on Iraq. "Rebuilding Iraq is necessary for the stability of the entire Middle East and the rest of the world, and is in Japan's best interests," Koizumi said in a nationally broadcast news conference on Dec. 10.

This, of course, exactly mirrors Bush's belief that rebuilding Iraq is necessary for the stability in the Middle East and the world, as Bush has made clear in his many speeches on the subject.

Koizumi went on to say that Japan was meeting its responsibility as a longtime US ally, as opposed to a sovereign nation with its own obligations to the world. "The US is Japan's only ally, and it is striving very hard to build a stable and democratic government in Iraq," he said. "Japan must also be a trustworthy ally to the US."

Apparently those words were designed to assuage the Japanese public, which is overwhelmingly opposed to his decision to involve Japan in America's overseas ventures. Recent polls show that only about one-third of Japanese voters approve of the sending the non-combat troops to Iraq.

According to Nobukatsu Kanehara, a counselor for political affairs in the Japanese Embassy in Washington and the former director of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan's adherence to US foreign policy goals will only increase in the coming years.

"We are dependent on the U.S.-Japan alliance," he declared at a Dec. 10 forum on the Security Treaty sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Washington.

Kanehara described Japan's current policies as a continuation of the national strategy its leaders adopted in 1952 at the height of the Korean War, when Japan agreed to keep US bases on its territory indefinitely.

At that time, "we jumped into the new world and extended our national interests," he said. "Japan needs friends to expand its global influence. Our choice was the United States."

But Japan "won't be an expanding country," assured Kanehara, because its military is defensive in nature and lacks offensive capabilities.

Because the United States withdrew nearly all of its army forces from Japan after the Korean War, "that left the burden on Japan's ground forces," which remain three times larger than its air force, which has no ability to strike, and its navy, which can only monitor sea lanes out to 1,000 miles. "The US Seventh Fleet is our friendly fleet," said Kanehara.

Japan's overseas deployments have been closely aligned with US policy goals as well. Its first overseas peacekeeping mission, which took place under U.N. auspices in 1993 in Cambodia, was widely seen in Japan as an experiment to gauge both foreign and domestic reaction. It was followed by another "blue helmet" peacekeeping mission to Kenya.

In 1998, however, Japan's overseas military capacity expanded significantly when it signed a major agreement to provide logistics support to US forces in Asia. Then, following the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, which took the lives of 24 Japanese citizens, Japan sent 24 naval ships to the Indian Ocean. These oilers, Kanehara said, eventually carried 50 percent of the oil for the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan.

Responding to Kanehara, James J Przystup, a research professor at the Institute of National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University and the former director of Asian Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, called the U.S.-Japan alliance a "central element" in the US global strategy.

The alliance is important because it defends Japan in Northeast Asia, provides "regional stability," and is "part of US global military strategy," said Przstup. He noted that the "first foreign deployment after Sept. 11 came from Japan." He concluded that "Japan's policies have changed remarkably over the last 10 years."

If Japan was an independent player on the world stage, that might be true. But as a junior partner to the United States in an alliance that has remained unchanged for over half a century, Japan may merely be moving in sync with the changes taking place in Washington – just as the former satellites of the Soviet Union might still be orbiting Moscow if their long-dead patron was still alive.

comments on this article?

Tim Shorrock is a freelance journalist based in Silver Spring, Maryland, who specializes in U.S. foreign policy in Asia, Korea, and labor issues. His writings have appeared in many publications at home and abroad.

Back to Home Page | Contact Us