Japan’s response to the Gulf War in 1990 was “too little, too late” and made the economic superpower look like a “political pygmy,” according to a critical assessment by Britain’s ambassador to Japan in recently declassified files.

Writing in March 1991, John Whitehead said Tokyo’s reaction was hampered by “weak political leadership, a cautious bureaucracy” and an inability to respond to fast-moving situations.

In a letter to his bosses in London dated March 18, 1991, Whitehead wrote, “The general perception must be that Japan has not come well out of the Gulf crisis.”

“Japan agonized and shilly-shallied but found it horribly hard to act. Hamlet writ large,” he wrote, in an apparent reference to the eponymous character’s hesitation to avenge his father’s murder in Shakespeare’s play.

The international community was frustrated by Japan’s failure to contribute troops or hardware to the multinational coalition. Japanese politicians and the public were divided on how to respond and the indecision slowed the flow of funds from Tokyo to the military coalition.

Because of constitutional constraints that prohibited dispatching troops, Japan ultimately donated a total of $13 billion to the multinational coalition but was stung by criticism it received from the international community for not doing enough.

Whitehead wrote that Japan was suffering a “fundamental crisis of identity.”

On the one side were those who favored a more muscular response in line with its economic position and close ties to the United States.

On the other were those with pacifist tendencies who argued the Constitution prohibited dispatching troops overseas, and felt the country should focus on economic prosperity, the ambassador noted in the files opened to the public in April.

According to Tokyo, of the additional ¥1.24 trillion in funding approved after the start of the war in January 1991, ¥1.15 trillion was donated to the United States, while Britain was allocated just ¥39 billion.

The files reveal British ministers’ disappointment with Japan’s financial contribution toward its own Gulf War costs, despite pleas by Prime Minister John Major to his Japanese counterpart Toshiki Kaifu.

A cable from the embassy in Tokyo points out that the figure amounted to about 3 percent of the total, “and falls significantly below our target of 8 percent to reflect our relative contribution to the military effort.”

Malcolm Sinclair, minister of state at the Foreign Office, commented in a response that the “contribution is scant reward for the stand we took and for our special position for them in Europe.”

Britain, which provided more than 53,000 troops to the allied force of 670,000 soldiers, felt it had been treated unfairly when compared to the size of the financial contribution made to the United States, which was by far the largest contributor to the multinational coalition.

Japan also put strings on the money offered, stipulating it could only be spent on logistics/transportation and not on weapons and ammunition.

Whitehead commented that as a result of the crisis Japan would not send combat troops overseas for the foreseeable future but might dispatch soldiers on U.N. peacekeeping operations.

But in defense of Japan, he noted that Tokyo had backed the multinational coalition and made “far from negligible” contributions to the multinational coalition aiming to retake Kuwait.

In response to his letter, John Coles, a senior official at the Foreign Office, wrote that he understood the pressures Japan was under and London should work with Tokyo in trying to craft a more suitable response in the future.

The Gulf War was triggered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. The multinational coalition against Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein comprised 39 countries. The military operation began in January 1991 with a massive air campaign followed by a ground offensive. By the end of February, a cease-fire had been declared and Kuwait was retaken by the allies.