In the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks on the United States, observers of Japanese politics were astonished to see the decisiveness with which Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi acted to lend Japanese support to the U.S. war on terrorism. Using remarkably tough language, Koizumi called the attacks — in which 24 Japanese perished — “unforgivable” and followed with a seven-point emergency plan committing the Japanese military to support U.S. activities in Afghanistan. Most notably, he pushed forcefully for the dispatch of members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, largely aboard high-tech Aegis cruisers, to the Indian Ocean to provide intelligence support. These actions stood in stark contrast to decades of Japanese pacifism and public ambivalence about the nation’s military stance, and Koizumi certainly expected to meet serious resistance from dovish members of the Japanese government. Perhaps for this reason, the popular, self-styled maverick Koizumi seemed especially eager to push through the debate quickly so that Japan would avoid the kind of harsh international criticism that had attended the nation’s tardiness in accepting any role in the Persian Gulf War. Although Japan ultimately made the largest financial contribution of any nation to that conflict, critics both at home and abroad referred derisively to the nation’s “checkbook diplomacy” and its unwillingness to risk lives even to support collective security arrangements. Although some argued that Japan would never be a “normal” country, Koizumi’s determination and the Japanese Diet’s relatively speedy passage of his legislation together indicated that Japan had done the seemingly impossible.

But if the war on terrorism really is a new kind of war, experts on Japan may need to rethink what this apparent shift really means. Something is and has been happening in Japanese debates over international security, and we may yet witness a sea-change in the nation’s policies toward the security of the Asia-Pacific region. What these recent moves will not do, however, is guarantee a change in Japanese thinking about terrorism and how to confront it. This, more than any specific Japanese failure to support American actions in Afghanistan, may genuinely endanger the alliance in ways that no one in Washington or Tokyo has addressed. If the U.S. war on terrorism expands to the Pacific Rim — as most analysts now believe it will — the United States will need and expect support that Japan will find difficult to provide. The nation is not prepared to engage in a genuine counterterrorist campaign, and its eagerness to support the United States may begin to backfire when it becomes clear what a war on terrorism means.

The shape of the security treaty

The story of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty is familiar if peculiar. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States Occupation forces in Japan dedicated themselves to two initial tasks: the country’s democratization and its pacification. Working with representatives of the Japanese government, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific Douglas MacArthur and his team crafted a new constitution reflecting both goals. Although this constitution, officially adopted in 1947, maintained some of the institutional features of the prewar Japanese government — especially its parliamentary system and a role for the emperor — it emphasized democratic rights and liberties and included a new legal commitment to pacifism. In Article IX of the constitution, Japan “forever renounces the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes” and further stipulates that “land, sea, and air forces . . . will never be maintained.” In explicit language, the section concludes, “the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” This, it seemed, would satisfy the American desire to avoid a future war with Japan.

Within a few short years, however, U.S. authorities — who occupied Japan until 1952 — added two more goals for the nation, both tied to the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union. On a general level, the U.S. government sought Japanese economic development to demonstrate to other Pacific nations that growth and wealth would accompany the democratic path rather than the communist path. Japan would thus serve an important propaganda role. With concerns over Soviet expansionism, however, American military authorities began to push for Japanese rearmament in order to provide the United States with an important ally in its Asian containment strategy. Some even hoped to enlist active Japanese military participation in the Korean War.

Ironically, the first important defenders of Japan’s pacifism were its conservatives, especially its formidable postwar prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida. Fearing that a rapid move toward military re-engagement would undermine the country’s fragile prospects for economic growth, Yoshida held firm against American demands for active Japanese participation in containment. Japan’s leftist parties, especially the powerful Socialists and less powerful Communists, also endorsed pacifism, though for very different reasons. For them, Article IX served as both a repudiation of the country’s rightist military platform in the 1930s and a limit on their country’s willingness to support America’s anti-communism in the Pacific. By the late 1950s, however, this area of left-right agreement had been replaced by a growing rift over how Japan could best ensure its own defense. Yoshida’s successors in the newly formed Liberal Democratic Party (ldp) sensed that unless Japan solidified its security relationship with the United States, it would be vulnerable to potential enemies in the region, particularly China and the Soviet Union. They sought to extend a formal agreement that would allow America to continue to hold bases in Japan while Japan would remain under an American security umbrella. When Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi staked his reputation on the quick ratification of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1960, he faced fierce opposition from the parties on the left, who saw it as an effort to implicate Japan in U.S. military adventures in Asia. Kishi succeeded, but only by arresting the Socialist Diet members who had physically blocked access to the legislative chambers in a last-ditch effort to prevent a vote. The protests in Tokyo surrounding this controversy were so severe that Kishi resigned his position.

This would in many ways prove to be the defining issue in Japan’s postwar politics, producing sharper party divisions than would welfare, labor, or other domestic policies. For nearly 40 years, the ruling ldp’s hawks — not always a unified bloc — aimed for a larger military role for the nation but could not overcome the opposition of the parties of the left to constitutional revision. When Japan began to build genuine armed forces capable of playing at least some role in the defense of the Japanese islands, it had to name them the “Self-Defense Forces” in order to ensure that they were fully consistent with the constitution’s rejection of belligerency and the right of war. At best, more aggressive ldp members had to settle for “reinterpretation” of the constitution, which was used incrementally to allow a growing, though still highly constrained, military role for the nation. The Japanese commitment to pacifism has been more complex than a simple left-right issue, with many believing that Japan’s security is best served through political and economic rather than military engagement. Even after the recent collapse of the traditional opposition, like the Socialists, the ldp has needed to maintain coalitions with parties less inclined to support an enhanced role for the Japanese military. Moreover, Japan’s Asian neighbors have generally been quick to criticize any ldp effort to expand the size or mission of the Self-Defense Forces, producing vitriol that has been a potent tool for the domestic opponents of rearmament.

American requests for increased Japanese military commitments under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty have not fallen on deaf ears, but they have sometimes seemed to reverberate off political issues linked only tangentially to questions of national defense. Although Japan’s commitment of $13 billion to the allied effort in the Persian Gulf War dwarfed that of most other nations, its perceived dithering over constitutional issues left many convinced it was unprepared to accept a genuine political role in the post-Cold War world. A 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three American servicemen in Okinawa inflamed Japanese public opinion against the U.S. forces, provoking anger in Okinawa, Tokyo, and Washington over the role of the United States in the region. When the Japanese and American governments renegotiated the guidelines surrounding the treaty in 1997, issues like these played a heavy role in extracting American guarantees of cooperation in the event of criminal behavior by its troops, and also Japanese promises of an expanded sdf role in the event of a crisis near Japan. These changes have thus far remained largely untested. Until September 11, 2001, however, American and Japanese concerns over the alliance remained focused on potential hot-spots in the Taiwan Straits and the Korean peninsula. The Japanese response to the attacks needs to be seen in the context of a more durable debate over Japan’s partnership with America in the Pacific and may be a poor guide to the part Japan will play in a long-term counterterrorist coalition.

The counterterrorism bill

It might seem natural for a conservative Japanese politician to seize upon the September 11 attacks as an opportunity to expand Japan’s security role. After all, here was Japan’s closest ally — and in the minds of many Japanese, a trusted friend — badly wounded and calling immediately for help. Additionally, because Japanese national security was not directly threatened by the attack, policymakers on all sides could calmly debate the long term implications of Japan’s response. If Japanese hawks were to have a chance to make Japan more “normal” by giving its armed forces the opportunity to participate in internationally sanctioned activities, this would likely be it.

Even so, it is hard to imagine any recent Japanese politician having been as bold as Koizumi. Armed with remarkable popularity and a reputation as a free-thinking maverick, perhaps only he could have immediately made the bold seven-point proposal his cabinet sent to the Diet for a vote. Koizumi’s apparent willingness to stake his reputation on Japanese military participation has been, by Japanese standards, amazingly bold, even given the envy that many conservatives feel of Britain’s immediate willingness to commit itself wholly to the U.S.-led war. The measures may be largely symbolic — after all, the lack of joint training makes it difficult to see how Japan’s flagships, the Aegis cruisers, will contribute much to American intelligence-gathering efforts after they are dispatched to the Indian Ocean — but they undoubtedly reflect a genuine desire to make Japan a more reliable alliance partner: one that is willing to share risks with the Americans.

Although even the loosest interpretations of the Japanese constitution prohibit a direct combat role for Japanese soldiers in an offensive against the Taliban, Koizumi’s cabinet moved as close to that position as it reasonably could. In discussions of its Bill to Support Counterterrorism (Tero taisaku shijô hôan), the cabinet stipulated that Japanese medical personnel should be allowed to set up field hospitals in Pakistan to respond to casualties should land attacks ensue. Nothing bottles up the Japanese Diet like defense debates, and even some Liberal Democratic Party members expressed concerns about the extent of the proposed reforms. Undaunted, however, Prime Minister Koizumi even remarked on October 10 that he did not see Diet approval as necessary for the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces on his command. Aware that this would most likely provoke a constitutional crisis that his career might not survive, Koizumi will likely steer clear of this option. But with the memory of national embarrassment in the Persian Gulf War hanging over the Diet, politicians have struggled to ensure that Japan is not once again left outside the club of allies.

The frustrating pace of debate has resulted not from cowardice or weakness but from genuine questions over what the Japanese constitution permits. It should thus be compared not to the speed of American or British deployment but rather to the careful and lengthy deliberation of the U.S. Congress over anti-terrorism legislation. The Japanese Diet pored over the constitutional issues in the Koizumi counterterrorism bill just as the U.S. Congress repeatedly sent Attorney General John Ashcroft back to the drawing board to ensure that his counterterrorism bill would be consistent with congressional concerns about individual rights and liberties.

The difference, therefore, is not in the Japanese caution regarding a law that would dramatically alter the nation’s constitutional orientation. It lies instead in the nature of the law. Whatever one thinks of the Ashcroft bill, it is legitimately a counterterrorism proposal, one that seeks to create a systematic government approach to dealing with this discrete phenomenon. The Japanese version is not real counterterrorism legislation, but rather an initiative to help U.S. action in this specific instance. This may not matter for Japan’s participation in the military campaign in Afghanistan, but it spells trouble in the event of a lengthy, U.S.-led war on terrorism, especially one that spreads — as it probably will — to the Pacific basin. There, the United States will want and expect assistance that even Prime Minister Koizumi will be unable to extend.

Two rocks and a hard place

Japan will likely not be able to provide significant assistance to the United States in a long war on terrorism because, unlike the United States, Japan has no real counterterrorism policy. No basic counterterrorism philosophy exists in Japan, and it has never been a real topic of conversation between the government and the governed. Even Japan’s most renowned and articulate hawks have tended to bracket terrorism not as a security issue but rather as a “crisis management” problem. To the extent that the Japanese debate international security, they have focused largely on the constitutional issues involved in the U.S.-Japan alliance.

To be sure, these concerns bear on Japan’s ability to create a counterterrorism strategy. Facing constitutional restrictions on the use of military force as well as admirable — even by American standards — guarantees of civil liberties, the Japanese National Defense Agency and National Police Agency have both encountered distinct problems in confronting terrorism. Although the police have Special Assault Teams that ostensibly resemble swat teams in the United States, their use has been highly circumscribed; the sdf have virtually no special forces capabilities to speak of, and therefore cannot prosecute any kind of offensive operations against terrorist groups. The National Police Agency used to have a counterterrorism division, which focused largely on the threat from the Japanese Red Army, but it was reduced to a smaller office in an organizational shift in the 1990s.

In the absence of an ability to “fight” terrorism meaningfully, Japan has in the past negotiated with terrorist organizations. In 1977, for example, the Japanese Red Army (jra) hijacked a Japan Air Lines jet and landed it in Dacca, Bangladesh; the Japanese government paid a ransom of $6 million to secure the release of the hostages. Now facing international conventions and agreements that forbid negotiating with terrorists (on the logical though empirically unproven grounds that concessions to terrorists will produce more terrorism), Japan has adopted a “no concessions” principle. Japan’s Diplomatic Blue Book (Gaikô Seishô) from 1996, however, leaves little doubt that the principle owes at least as much to “international responsibilities” as it does to a deeply held conviction that negotiations are improper. In fact, Japanese newspapers reported that, contra government denials, Japan paid a ransom of between $2 million and $5 million to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (the imu, linked closely with the Taliban and with al Qaeda) to win the release of four Japanese geologists taken hostage in Kyrgyzstan in 1999.

Even constrained by limits on the use of force and by international prohibitions on concessions, however, Japan might have adopted a policy of simply doing nothing. That is, the government could have concluded that terrorism represents at best a minor security threat and therefore should not force any change in other political priorities, security guarantees, or basic international principles. But this too is off the table because of a widespread belief that the government should do anything possible — including the payment of ransoms — to ensure the safety of Japanese hostages in terrorist crises. Newspaper polls show that the majority of Japanese believe that the government should make concessions to terrorists to win the release of hostages, though the percentage dropped from 67 percent during the Dacca crisis to a more recent 55 percent during a similar event at the residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru in 1996-97. Understandably, Japanese policymakers believe that their primary responsibility is to protect Japanese overseas rather than to engage in a sustained campaign against terrorism. In fact, the bureau that calls itself in English the “Anti-Terrorism Bureau” in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is, in Japanese, the “Hôjin tokubetsu taisakushitsu,” or “Office of Special Measures for Our Citizens Overseas.”

Japanese and foreign critics of the nation’s admitted “case-by-case” approach to terrorism argue that its stance makes it particularly unable to deal with individual terrorist crises. During the 1996-97 siege in Peru by militants from the Tupac Amaru movement, the Japanese government’s cautious voice seemed to add little to the quality of Peruvian and international efforts to end the standoff. Moreover, the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways almost certainly had a more pronounced effect on U.S. counterterrorism policy than it did on Japan’s. Instead of creating new institutions to cope with the possibility of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction, the National Police Agency, after years of careful deliberation, pushed through a law giving the government more powers to investigate and regulate “those organizations that have committed indiscriminate mass murder.” Rather than adopt a strong stance against terrorism, the government gave itself more power to prosecute Aum Shinrikyo and other groups, provided that those groups have already carried out large-scale slaughter. Nothing in the debate over Koizumi’s law to support America’s war on terrorism suggests that there has been a radical rethinking of Japan’s appropriate response to terrorist crises.

After Afghanistan, what?

The impulse to support the United States in its war on terrorism thus arises from the criticism of Japan’s tardiness in the Gulf War and from an eagerness of Japanese hawks to demonstrate the nation’s support for its alliance partner. It does not, however, represent Japanese resolve against terrorism as a phenomenon that can be meaningfully confronted as part of an overall strategy. Although Japan might well provide symbolic and important practical support to the United States, advocates of Japanese commitments on both sides of the Pacific almost certainly see this as a harbinger of a more fruitful U.S.-Japan alliance. In doing so, they have missed the likely limits on Japanese cooperation in a bona fide U.S.-led war on terrorism and therefore will likely not recognize the political tensions that might serve to undermine the alliance.

The Japanese have no illusions about the risks to sdf members in the Afghani theater, particularly if they run field hospitals for American troops in Pakistan, as has been suggested. In fact, much of the Diet debate before the October 30 passage of the Koizumi bill focused on the conditions under which sdf members can fire their weapons to defend themselves or those under their care. But there has been little discussion in Japan of the possibility that Japanese civilians themselves will become targets if they are seen to be part of a broader counterterrorism effort. Should the conflict spread to Southeast Asia, Japan will find itself in a terrible dilemma.

Why would it spread to that region? U.S. policymakers have identified clear links between al Qaeda and Islamic movements in the region, including the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines and the Islamic Defenders Front and Laskar Jihad in Indonesia. In the Philippines, of course, Islamic militants operate in a nation that is largely Roman Catholic, and their efforts are largely secessionist in nature. The relationship between Islam and the Indonesian government is more complex because the nation is predominantly Muslim and Islamic parties have been important players in Indonesian politics for decades. With the recent ouster of long-time dictator President Suharto, they are more relevant than ever, and President Megawati Sukarnoputri has to be concerned about taking steps that will rile conservative Muslim communities.

Terrorists thrive in communities that are broadly sympathetic to their goals, as well as in areas where state power is highly limited. Failed states like Afghanistan provide an exceptionally good environment for terrorist training, financing, and planning. If the United States successfully pushes militants out of Afghanistan as a result of its attacks, remaining al Qaeda operatives will likely gravitate toward established groups with whom they have had some links, especially in areas where state authorities have weak law enforcement and intelligence capabilities. American analysts have determined that the southern Philippines and Indonesia would be likely arenas for the planning and organization of further anti-American attacks. For this reason, security policymakers in Washington are already considering options for counterterrorist operations in Southeast Asia.

This will mean that the United States will expect active Japanese participation; this participation will endanger the lives of Japanese throughout the region and perhaps at home as well. sdf troops in Pakistan would be close enough to the front line to take fire, but as everyone in the American counterterrorism community recognizes, there really are no borders in terrorism. To be sure, the U.S. will be the prime target, but no one who has traveled extensively in Southeast Asia can fail to be impressed by anti-Japanese sentiment born both of economic resentment and of anger over Japan’s wartime behavior. Should Japan be clearly and publicly allied with the American effort, Japanese civilians in these nations will face a new and threatening environment. Especially given the predilection of some groups toward attacking “soft targets,” lightly guarded Japanese diplomatic installations and private firms would likely become tempting targets of opportunity.

Nothing in Japan’s counterterrorism policies or the government’s dialogue with citizens has prepared Japanese for this possibility. Right now, the only risks under serious discussion are the nation’s constitutional virtues, its relations with skeptical Asian neighbors, its links to the United States, and the possible danger to Japanese troops. It is possible that terrorist attacks on Japanese would increase the enthusiasm for a war on terrorism, but history suggests otherwise. In the aftermath of the Lima crisis, the Japanese government tightened security on some installations but otherwise showed little increased interest in terrorism. And after the Kyrgyzstan attack, the Japanese government continued its aid programs to the Ferghana Valley — but hired foreign workers to replace the Japanese on the ground. In fact, the clear role of the Japanese government has been to protect Japanese, usually by trying to keep them out of harm’s way. Which, in this case, might mean “out of the war on terrorism.”

Even if Japanese are not made immediate targets, the spread of U.S. operations to Southeast Asia would imperil Japan’s own diplomatic initiatives in these countries, especially Indonesia. Japan has thrived on its economic relations with other states, especially those in East and Southeast Asia; it will understandably be reluctant to jeopardize these to adhere to the U.S. line on terrorism in the region. Without a guiding set of principles or policies, Japan’s few counterterrorism specialists are no match for the entrenched corps of regional affairs, economic policy, and diplomatic bureaucrats who guide most of the nation’s foreign policies. How many “economic cooperation” initiatives would be sacrificed in Indonesia if the Japanese government were to provide support to the United States there? If the Indonesian government were to reject U.S. military operations, would the Japanese government remain silent on covert operations launched from American bases in Okinawa? How far would the sdf go in supporting U.S. troops in Southeast Asia?

No one yet knows the answers to these questions. Alarmingly, no one seems to have asked. Instead, remembering Japan’s late and limited role in the Persian Gulf War, most American analysts of Japanese security politics seem heartened by the alacrity with which Koizumi made his seven-point proposal. To be sure, a precedent set now would make more likely Japanese support of America’s overall security profile in the Pacific rim. But it might be less important if the Bush administration proves to be truly committed to a global war on terrorism. If Japan seems not to cooperate in, and even to hinder, America’s progress in the war on terrorism, American public support for U.S. commitments to the defense of Japan will face its most serious challenge since the occupation.

A difficult new choice

Japan’s foreign policy and security leaders thus face a difficult choice, and not the conventional one of pacifism vs. military engagement. The American war on terrorism involves great dangers and genuinely unforeseeable conclusions. Most of the terrorist organizations that interest U.S. policymakers have shown little interest in Japan, though this will likely change if Japan becomes more deeply involved. Clearly, Japan’s interests would be served by maintaining a strong alliance with the United States, but it takes a leap of faith to conclude that Japan will be safer even in the long term from terrorism if it joins the American-led campaign in earnest.

If Japanese leaders want to make their nation a more comprehensive partner of the United States in the war on terrorism, they will need to take different, more nuanced steps than they have thus far. Rather than expending all political capital on open-ended support for a large-scale American offensive in southwestern Asia, the prime minister should move to re-establish a terrorism division in the National Police Agency and should also substantially beef up the size and profile of the Special Measures office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where it is institutionally powerless against regional bureaus. They should also enlarge the intelligence capabilities of the Defense Agency, giving it a mandate broader than its current focus primarily on China and North Korea.

Even more important, Japanese leaders will need to discuss terrorism to ensure that citizens understand why it is a threat and why the government will adhere to fixed, transparent standards regarding its handling. If the Japanese public are behind — they clearly are not now — a genuine war on terrorism that will likely involve dangers to civilians, police, and members of the armed forces alike, Japan can provide more important guarantees to the United States regarding long-term support. In the absence of any public debate on what terrorism is and why it presents a threat, Japanese cooperation in the war on terrorism will remain doubtful.

These recommendations presuppose that Japan’s interests are and should be firmly aligned with those of the United States. But Japanese policymakers may want to bear in mind that for all the expertise, talent, and institutional support involved in America’s counterterrorism efforts, the U.S. government does not fundamentally know how to stop terrorism. To be sure, the U.S. government has successfully isolated the Taliban, has won the extradition of terrorist suspects for trial in the United States, and may have destroyed individual terrorist groups. These accomplishments, however, are hardly the same as ensuring that Americans are safe. It seems logical, of course, that a stern approach to terrorism that emphasizes military and law enforcement capabilities might be more useful than concessions or other, more conciliatory, approaches. But the evidence is mixed, as we simply do not know precisely the best method for reducing the overall threat of terrorism. It is possible, after all, that Japanese will be safer if the government tries to fly under the radar of terrorist groups, dealing with incidents on its familiar “case-by-case” basis, than if it cooperates with the United States. The risks to the alliance would, however, be profound.

This is not to argue that Japan should necessarily continue its ambivalent approach to international terrorism. Perhaps a genuine war, built at least in part on military engagement, is necessary, and the Bush administration’s program might be effective. Moreover, maintaining American faith in the U.S.-Japan alliance — so crucial to Japan’s security — is almost certainly worth some risks. But risks there are, and the Japanese government will need to consider what real cooperation with the United States in this conflict will look like. For decades, Japanese politicians have debated what it means for the Japanese constitution to have Japanese troops on or near the front lines. Now they will have to consider how their nation will enter a war without fronts, in which all civilians are themselves part of the campaign.

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