In the wake of the Gulf crisis of August 1990, then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush urged Japan to provide logistical support to the U.S. military via its Self-Defense Forces, despite constitutional constraints, according to diplomatic records declassified Wednesday and testimony from former government officials.
The request was made directly to then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.
Japan did not fulfill Bush's request to dispatch the SDF to the Gulf War effort. However, it did deploy minesweepers in the Persian Gulf as a postwar contribution, reflecting the United States' strong influence on Tokyo's security policy.
A top secret diplomatic cable that recorded a meeting between Kaifu and Bush on Sept. 29, 1990, revealed that the former president told Kaifu that he was aware Tokyo was considering ways to contribute militarily to international efforts in the Middle East, after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Bush added that such an action would be beneficial and appreciated by the world, expressing hope that Japan would contribute without delay.
This is the first time it has been publicly revealed that the U.S. president attempted to persuade Japan to dispatch the SDF in connection with the crisis.
Koichiro Matsuura, a former Japanese ambassador to France who served as head of the Foreign Ministry's North American Affairs Bureau, said Bush had asked earlier, in a phone call on Aug. 14, for the SDF to sweep mines and transport weapons.
In a series of talks, Kaifu responded by expressing the need to protect the war-renouncing Article 9 of the postwar Constitution, while stressing his desire to cooperate.
He sought to compromise by establishing a nonmilitary U.N. peacekeeping operations team and having some SDF personnel be part of that. But the plan ran into difficulties after a bill aimed at allowing Japan to cooperate in U.N. peacekeeping operations was scrapped in November of that year due to public opposition.
Japan was embroiled in a heated debate at the time over dispatching the SDF overseas under the constraints of the pacifist Constitution. In a meeting of political party leaders held before Kaifu's trip to New York for the summit meeting, the Japan Socialist Party and Komeito expressed their opposition to SDF deployment overseas.
According to diplomatic cables and former government officials, the United States effectively notified Japan of its intention to use force on Jan. 14, 1991 — three days before the Gulf War began.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker secretly told his Japanese counterpart Taro Nakayama during his visit to the United States that the blood of Americans would be shed.
The records and testimonies also revealed that of the $13 billion Japan provided to the multinational coalition in aid, $9 billion was added in response to a request by then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady during a meeting with his Japanese counterpart Ryutaro Hashimoto in New York.
Multiple former Japanese government officials have testified that while there was no basis for the total amount sought by the United States, there was "no other choice" but to meet the request.
But Japan's response to the Gulf War was internationally criticized as "too little, too late," making it a traumatic experience for lawmakers and government officials that have strongly influenced the course of the country's security and foreign policies ever since.
Taizo Miyagi, a Sophia University professor who specializes in the history of international politics, said Japan was "overwhelmingly strong as an economic superpower" at the time of the Gulf War, and that U.S. "dissatisfaction" with Tokyo's reluctance to bear "a reasonable burden" is reflected in the diplomatic records.
"The Gulf War became a trauma for Japan, and the axis for evaluating foreign affairs since then has become the perspective of the United States," Miyagi said.
The two countries also discussed Japan's involvement in the Gulf War at a meeting between then-U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Robert Kimmitt and then-Japanese Ambassador to the United States Ryohei Murata on Aug. 22 the same year, before the summit meeting.
Noting that West Germany was considering amending its Basic Law at the time, Kimmitt said that Japan would suffer from being bound to its historical position and not being able to respond to new challenges, according to the diplomatic documents.
Bush's request for an SDF deployment was treated as top secret within the Japanese government. Although some news outlets reported the contents of the summit meeting, the First North America Division of the Foreign Ministry prepared a document that denied Japan had received a request to dispatch the SDF.
The denial was likely made out of fear of harsh reactions from the public and from opposition parties.
Kaifu was unable to pass the bill on U.N. peacekeeping cooperation under his administration. Legislation that enabled full-scale deployment of SDF troops overseas was enacted under the administration of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in June 1992.
Legal changes now allow the SDF to be dispatched to overseas peacekeeping operations even if they are not under the control of the United Nations.
Still, sending the SDF abroad for Japan's defense or international security cooperation needs to meet some conditions and remains a sensitive issue under the pacifist Constitution.
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