On Dec. 18, 1956, on a freezing winter’s day, the ceremony for Japan’s admission into the U.N. was held at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Witnessing the ceremony, I felt the sincerity and warmth of other nations in remarks made by representatives of the countries that welcomed Japan’s return to the international community. It was something more than just a feeling of celebration; then-Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu’s halting speech on the occasion was filled with joy and pride on Japan’s return to the international community.
Reflecting on Japan’s past actions with great remorse, Shigemitsu strongly asserted Japan’s determination to take an honorable position in the international community. As a country that had renounced war and the use of force, it was a natural choice for Japan to strengthen the U.N. to protect itself from wars and conflicts and promote international peace. But at the same time, it cannot be denied that Shigemitsu’s speech also included some remarks hinting at over-idealism, which had grown in the 23 years following Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 and passive attitude toward peacemaking, stemming from the fact that Japan was under the U.S. protection.
Japanese diplomats were excellent, and what they achieved at the U.N. was remarkable and worthy of closer attention, even shortly after Japan joined the organization. In the year after joining, Japan was selected as a non-permanent member to the U.N. Security Council. To date, Japan has since been selected 11 times through sometimes-difficult election campaigns. Japan’s only loss was to Bangladesh in the 1978 election. In addition to the non-permanent seat on the council, Japan won seats on the economic and social councils and other U.N. organizations.
For countries all over the world, the U.N. is a place to express opinions, as well as a place for multilateral negotiations aimed at reaching global agreements. Additionally, it is a place where international norms are ratified. The U.N.’s activities are not limited to the headquarters on the banks of New York’s East River. Indeed, humanitarian support, development aid and peacekeeping operations are ongoing at more than 100 locations around the world, and the organization is proactive in rescuing people from wars and poverty. Japan has supported many of these activities and continues to do so today.
Soon after joining the organization, Japan found itself in the middle of conflicts between developed and developing nations. At that time, the country issued the so-called three principles of diplomacy, which were “U.N.-centered policy,” “cooperating with Western countries” and “maintaining a position as a member of Asia.” As a matter of fact, the second principle, “cooperating with Western countries,” held the highest priority of the three. A “U.N.-centered policy” was understandable in Japan, but conveyed an imprecise impression outside. As the 1970s began, the confrontation between developed countries and developing countries became more apparent, and it proved to be difficult time for Japan as the nation had previously preferred conciliatory diplomatic policies. In the 1980s, while the U.S. diplomatic stance was at odds with the U.N., Japan, a major financial contributor, attempted to defuse the confrontation by taking the initiative in the structural reorganization of the U.N.
Entering the post-Cold War era of the 1990s, Japan took an active role in the discussions on “preventive diplomacy” advocated by then-Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. With the 1992 Diet approval of the Act on Cooperation for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations and Other Operations, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces were dispatched to Cambodia in 1992 and East Timor in 1999, to be actively involved in activities to help calm disputes, build the countries’ infrastructure and maintain international peace. At present, they are involved in peacekeeping operations in South Sudan, where ethnic conflicts and efforts to unite the country face many difficulties.
Japan’s past foreign ministers pushed for reorganization of the U.N. Security Council, in an attempt to become a permanent member. To achieve that goal, Japan conducted diplomatic activities in 2005 in cooperation with other countries such as India, Germany and Brazil. However, in the end, the efforts did not bear fruit due to China’s opposition and the U.S. position of maintaining the status quo. With a faction preferring to maintain existing conditions within the U.N., Japan must either continue its pursuit of a permanent council membership, or adjust its strategy and first seek a “semi-permanent seat” on the council. Japan has to be not only more actively involved in U.N. activities, but also consider multiple options in a flexible manner before attempting to gain more supporters within the organization. In addition to the council, Japan has interest in a wide variety of U.N. activities and is expected to continue taking forward-looking roles in those multinational activities.
In the 1990s, Japan was the world’s largest donor of official development assistance (ODA) to developing nations. It is therefore regrettable to see the country, at present, ranked fourth, or even fifth, among developed countries in terms of ODA, as the amount of ODA is now about 30 percent lower than it was at its peak. Although the country is still the second-largest contributor in terms of financial contributions to the U.N. regular budget, Japan fell behind China to third place in terms of financial contributions to extraordinary budgets, such as those created for peacekeeping activities. It is inevitable that Japan’s rank on the list of financial contributors to the U.N. regular budget will fall in the future, as the country’s economy shrinks. Given that, I would like to see, sooner rather than later, Japan achieve the target of making voluntary financial contributions to developing nations equal to 0.7 percent of the country’s total gross national income, a demand that has been made repeatedly at the U.N. General Assembly.
Looking back at what Japan has accomplished since joining the U.N., the status and influence the country has gained within and outside the organization are impressive and cover a wide variety of areas. However, as there are still many developing nations in Asia and Africa, I hope Japan will not rest on its laurels and continues to make the types of efforts that are expected from a major developed country.
After Japan applied for U.N. membership, we had to wait four years before winning approval and achieving acceptance, overcoming hardships caused by the vetoes exercised by the Soviet Union three times. There is no doubt that our predecessors, over the last 60 years, went through hard times to make the best use of the hard-won status in an effective and a multilayered way. Looking back at our path, Japan from here on would like to expand U.N. activities with a global view by standing on the philosophy and values that made the country what it is, as well as preserving national interests.
After graduating from the University of Tokyo, Yasushi Akashi studied at the University of Virginia and later at the Fletcher School. He joined the United Nations Secretariat in 1957. He served as under-secretary-general for public information, under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs, special representative of the secretary-general for Cambodia and later for the former Yugoslavia. He was under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs until the end of 1997. Currently, he serves as chairman of the International House of Japan, representative of the Government of Japan on Peace-Building in Sri Lanka, vice-president of the United Nations Association of Japan, advisor of Japan Center for Conflict Prevention and visiting professor for promoting the “Establishing a Gateway to the U.N. and international organizations” plan for Kwansei Gakuin University.
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