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Staff writer In August 1990, when then Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu telephoned U.S. President George Bush to offer a $1 billion contribution to the U.S.-led multinational forces in the Persian Gulf, Bush offered a disappointed-sounding “Thank you” before hanging up.

“We had thought we were offering a pretty good amount,” said Nobuo Ishihara, then deputy chief Cabinet secretary, who was listening in on the telephone conversation. “There might have been a gap in the sense of crisis (between Tokyo and Washington) toward what was happening in the Persian Gulf.”

The decade following the Gulf War saw tremendous changes in Japan’s now 50-year-old security alliance with the U.S.

Japan’s Constitution, which prohibits the nation from using military force in international disputes, left the nation to concentrate on economic reconstruction and development after the security treaty with the U.S. was signed in 1951.

However, as Japan’s economic power surged and the Cold War came to an end, regional conflicts erupted worldwide, and the nation could no longer shy away from taking on an international security role.

The Gulf War became the first event to push Japan to take concrete action, Ishihara said.

The bilateral alliance did not obligate Japan to support U.S. forces outside the Far East. But the nation’s heavy reliance on oil from the Middle East meant Japan had a vital interest in the region’s stability.

While pressure mounted at home and abroad for Japan to do something more than throw money at the problem, strong domestic opposition prevented the government from dispatching Self-Defense Forces troops to the Gulf for logistic support.

The feeling in the U.S. about Japan’s financial contribution, which totaled $13 billion, was that it was too little, too late.

When Kuwait ran an advertisement in major U.S. newspapers to express its gratitude to the countries that came to its aid, Japan was not mentioned.

The Gulf War came during a period of anti-Japan sentiment in the U.S., as exemplified by a 1989 issue of Newsweek, which blared “Japan Invades Hollywood” on its cover after Sony Corp.’s purchase of Columbia Pictures. It was a time when Japanese firms were on a bubble economy roll, snapping up prominent U.S. properties.

This experience led to major changes in Japan’s security policy. For example, Maritime Self-Defense Force minesweepers were sent to the Gulf after the ceasefire, marking the first SDF overseas activity since the establishment of postwar defense forces in 1950.

Brushing aside strong resistance from the opposition camp, the Liberal Democratic Party passed a package of bills in the Diet in 1992 to enable the SDF to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations.

‘Redefined’ security treaty

U.S. frustration at Japan’s passive stance in security matters resurfaced in 1993, when tensions mounted over North Korea’s suspected nuclear weapons development.

U.S. forces in Japan, through discussions with Foreign Ministry and Defense Agency officials, reportedly presented a detailed list of logistic support they needed from Japan, including permission to use civilian ports and airports in emergencies.

According to the original 1978 guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, Japan was supposed to prepare guidelines for the type of support to be provided to U.S. forces during emergencies in the Far East. Despite its obligation, however, Tokyo had not passed any legislation to enable such actions.

Makoto Sakuma, then chairman of the Joint Staff Council, recalled a warning by a top U.S. defense official that “the bilateral alliance could end” if the U.S. military should suffer casualties in possible Sea of Japan missions while Tokyo did nothing.

Takakazu Kuriyama, then Japanese ambassador to the U.S., said one reason that prompted Washington to seek a diplomatic solution with Pyongyang instead of a military one was “the U.S. realized they would not get any cooperation from Japan and would not be able to carry out effective operations if it took military action.”

The crisis was a wakeup call to government officials in both Tokyo and Washington, who up to that point had tended to focus on economic relations, Kuriyama said.

In 1996, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and U.S. President Bill Clinton issued a joint declaration promoting a strengthened bilateral security alliance. The next year, the 1978 defense cooperation guidelines were updated.

This series of actions was termed a “redefining” of the security treaty, which appeared to have lost much of its raison d’etre when the Cold War ended.

Under the updated defense guidelines, Japan became obliged to support U.S. forces in future emergency situations in undefined “areas surrounding Japan.”

In 1999, the Diet passed a package of bills to cover the new guidelines, paving the way for a system that enabled Japan to meet most of the demands presented by U.S. forces during the long-past North Korean crisis.

The new guidelines substantially changed the alliance, making Japan responsible for its own defense as well as regional security beyond its borders.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who took office in April, has indicated his readiness to reinterpret or amend the Constitution to allow Japan to engage in collective defense. The self-imposed ban on collective defense could pose an obstacle as Japan tries to expand the scope of its support of U.S. military actions under the updated guidelines.

While the alliance was formed as Cold War tensions mounted, it was, ironically, the end of the Cold War that pushed Japan into playing a greater security role.

“During the Cold War, the U.S. overlooked some flaws in the alliance,” Sakuma said. But as concerns shifted from superpower confrontations to smaller regional conflicts, the U.S. came to believe that the party directly concerned should deal with such contingencies, leaving the U.S. to become involved only when its own interests are at stake, he said.

Shifting global alliances

Japan, which was not obliged to defend U.S. troops in international conflicts, has often been criticized for taking a “free ride” on the shoulders of the alliance.

However, developments during the 1990s illustrate the alliance’s importance to the global strategy of the U.S., especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

In 1994, a panel launched under then Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa compiled a report on the nation’s future security policy, in which the alliance with the U.S. was mentioned only after the need for multilateral security dialogue.

“The panel’s report in fact gave the impression to Washington that Japan had begun to consider a multinational security system as its main goal and the alliance with the U.S. as supplementary,” Kuriyama said.

Such moves by Japan, together with the North Korean nuclear situation, are believed to have prompted Washington to emphasize the crucial role of its bases in Japan.

“Given the great distances associated with the Pacific theater, assured access to bases in Japan plays a critical role in our ability to deter and defeat aggression,” said the 1995 report on East Asia strategy compiled by Joseph Nye, then assistant secretary of defense.

The Nye report also cited the “most generous” host nation support extended by Japan to U.S. forces based in the country. Such expenses amount to 450 billion yen annually, including the cost of the land lease, maintenance of facilities, utility charges and wages paid to Japanese base workers.

The report also referred to the large amounts of military equipment and services Japan buys from U.S. defense suppliers, saying such purchases have “also been beneficial to both countries.”

Anxiety, skepticism grows

As the two countries explore closer defense cooperation, there remains skepticism within the Japanese government, including Defense Agency officials, about whether the U.S. would fulfill its obligation to defend Japan from enemy attack if Washington had no vital interest at stake.

The Senkaku islands, southwest of Okinawa’s main island, which since 1970 have been claimed by China, are a good example. In 1996, then U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale stirred up controversy by telling the New York Times that the treaty would not apply to the uninhabited islands.

Although several U.S. officials later denied such views, Washington has yet to take a clear-cut position on the matter. The islands, under U.S. control until 1972, were used as a shooting range.

While the security alliance appears to have widespread public support, distrust lingers among many Japanese toward their own government, which critics say has not sufficiently responded to concerns that its plans to expand the nation’s security role contradict the war-renouncing Constitution.

Such doubts have led to anxieties that the updated guidelines could drag the nation into a U.S.-led war instead of serving as a deterrent force and ensuring the region’s stability.

Frustration with the security alliance runs high among residents in Okinawa, which provides 75 percent of the land allocated by Tokyo for U.S. facilities, as well as other local communities where residents complain of such problems as noise pollution caused by jets from U.S. bases in their neighborhoods.

Their frustration is also vented at the government, which usually does little about their complaints in order to avoid damaging security ties with the U.S.

In April, the government spent 5.2 billion yen to buy out a dioxin-emitting private waste incineration facility near the U.S. Atsugi Naval Air Facility in Kanagawa Prefecture, after the U.S. military complained that pollution from the incinerator was threatening the health of its service members and their families.

While the solution to the pollution problem was also good news for Japanese residents living nearby, and the MSDF, which shares use of the base, the episode left some frustrated that the government only takes action when it is requested by the U.S. military.

“It symbolically showed the nature of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty,” said Sagamihara Municipal Assembly member Tokio Kaneko, who has long campaigned against the noise pollution caused by U.S. jets. “The government of Japan always supports the U.S. position instead of representing its own people.”

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