In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq, it was common for reporters throughout the world to sample public opinion about it. As journalism, man-on-the-street interviews are more or less a sideshow, since, depending on the country, they offer little of substance in terms of information. Americans, in particular, while quick to give their views on the Iraq crisis, usually had nothing to back up those views. Their information was either incomplete, owing to the U.S. media’s generally one-sided coverage, or naive, owing to a lack of perspective best represented by the fact that history is no longer an integral part of U.S. primary education.

In Japan, the situation is as bad if not worse, but at least the media is willing to admit it. Last Tuesday, an hour before U.S. President George W. Bush’s televised ultimatum, TV Asahi’s “Super Morning” news show ran a segment in which reporters asked people on the street what they wanted to know about the Iraq conflict and then attempted to answer those questions. The telling title of the segment was “Maybe it’s too late to ask, but . . . “

Better late than never. Some questions, such as “Where is Iraq?” and “Will war lead to a toilet paper shortage?,” were beyond the pale. However, among the 150 respondents the two most common queries were “Why war?” and “What is Japan’s position?” The fact that these two questions ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, shows that people at least know what it is they are supposed to know.

Unlike in the United States, where the mainstream press has taken the White House position at face value, the Japanese media looks at the crisis more objectively and from a more global viewpoint. But there are still limitations, the main one being a belief that Japan’s own national interests (kokueki) are automatically tied to the United States’ because of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

In other words, Japan’s position — or, more exactly, the position of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — has never been in question: It will always support the United States in any military endeavor. This situation is tacitly understood and coverage has mainly been a matter of interpreting signals. In the tense weeks leading up to the ultimatum, the LDP indicated that it was behind the United Nations, all the while believing that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell would eventually convince the United Nations Security Council to support whatever military action the United States would take. The LDP was careful to never state its position in a definite manner, a strategy that led to several faux pas on the part of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, including a comment to opposition party chiefs two weeks ago that his decision would depend on the “atmosphere at the moment.”

Koizumi had no choice but to support the war, even without U.N. Security Council backing. His statement to reporters was not a formal press conference but a comparatively informal burasagari (literally, “dangling”) session held three hours after Bush made his speech (and, significantly, just as the afternoon Diet session was about to begin). On a “Super Morning” panel discussion, opposition party members interpreted this media ploy as a way to downplay Koizumi’s position in front of the Japanese public.

With the majority of Japanese people saying they disapprove of the war, it’s easy to understand this position. Up until that point, Koizumi had passed the Iraq buck to the Foreign Ministry, whose head, Yoriko Kawaguchi, also refused to speculate on the Iraq war as late as 30 minutes before Bush’s ultimatum. And Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, continually pressed by journalists to clarify Japan’s position vis-a-vis the United Nations, once told them impatiently to “go ask France.”

However people feel about the war itself, they seem to resent this obfuscation even more. Last week, a woman wrote a letter to the Asahi Shimbun stating her opposition to the war but her admiration for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who at least was brave enough to stand up for his beliefs in front of a group of antiwar constituents in a public forum.

Then the media, picking up on this sentiment right after the Bush announcement, started belittling the Japanese leadership’s nonleaderly stance. “The British Parliament debated the war for 10 hours,” one commentator said last Wednesday, adding that the Diet didn’t even spend a minute on the issue until after the ultimatum was made. A good portion of the Japanese press is against the war, but once the die was cast they began admiring not only Blair, but also Bush, simply because they saw the two leaders as willing to risk their political careers for what they believed.

As the war continues, Koizumi will be under pressure to stand up for Japan’s national interests, which have never been clearly defined outside of America’s own. The most immediate concern will be Japanese post-conflict aid, which the government has already pledged informally. A lot of Japanese people still wince at the memory of the Gulf War. Japan paid more than a trillion yen — a sixth of the total costs for that conflict — and was never properly acknowledged by the United States or the rest of the world for its contribution. As one Japanese military expert said on TV Asahi last week, “We didn’t even get a receipt.”

One thing’s for sure, the Japanese person-on-the-street definitely knows where North Korea is. The government will have to clarify its interests with regard to the situation on the peninsula and they may not coincide with Washington’s in this case. Smarting from criticism he received from the media and the opposition over his handling of the Iraq issue, Koizumi has already said he intends to clarify the government’s position about North Korea for the Japanese public. Again, better late than never.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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