A recent opinion poll in Japan shows that 68 percent of Japanese believe that the United States and Britain should not attack Iraq. Yet, in debates in the Diet, neither Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi nor Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi utter anything more than tepid responses such as: “Japan cannot respond to a hypothetical situation”; “Japan cannot take a definitive stance without assessing the results of the inspections”; or “It is in Japan’s national interest not to declare whether it supports the use of force.”

But Japan can no longer afford to be silent or vague about growing global insecurity, as the crisis next door on the Korean Peninsula demonstrates.

Why is Japan so seemingly detached in international affairs? Japan has relied entirely on the U.S. for its security needs for over 50 years, and the Japanese government essentially believes that it has no option but to agree with the U.S. or to keep silent.

Indeed, since the end of World War II, Japan has avoided a full-fledged debate on the country’s national security framework, in which Japan would have the courage to disagree with the U.S. Of course, most Japanese politicians, media commentators and academics understand the need for this stance, and the Japanese trait of putting a lid on troublesome issues reinforces this silence, compounding all problems in foreign policy.

But at times like these, when issues such as North Korea’s bid to acquire nuclear weapons and a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq provoke heated debate in the international community, the Japanese public is also engaged in frequent, daily exchanges about what Japan should do.

It is only the government that steadfastly refuses to intervene in the debate or propose any action.

Criticizing Japan’s silence need not undermine the Japanese-U.S. strategic alliance. Only last year the two countries commemorated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. During that half century, however, the map of world conflict has been rewritten and the means of warfare transformed, while Japan remains locked in viewpoints forged in the trauma of wartime defeat and U.S. Occupation.

There is another factor at work, too. Japan’s “Peace Constitution” supposedly bans possession of military forces. As a party to Japan’s debate on national security, I know from experience that attempting to clarify the vague constitutional status of our Self-Defense Forces would lead China and South Korea — victims of past Japanese invasions — to try to use dissenting voices within Japan to smother all discussion, killing mature debate. But Japan urgently needs such a debate if it is to respond to a world exposed to the threat of terrorism and gripped by fear.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and recent statements by CIA Director George Tenet that North Korea possesses missiles capable of reaching the U.S. West Coast undoubtedly shocked Americans out of their complacency over North Korea’s nuclear status. But what can shake Japan’s political class out of its silence?

Japan’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil also demands that we understand what a war against Iraq might mean. If Iraq’s oil fields are destroyed or the war is prolonged, surging oil prices will hit Japan and the world economy hard. The best way to avoid this risk is for Iraq to raise its level of cooperation toward the inspections unconditionally and show all the proof needed to dispel the allegations leveled against it. Japan ought to speak up and say this.

Japan also can directly assist in resolving the North Korea crisis by acting as a facilitator, encouraging Russian President Vladimir Putin — in concert with Japan, South Korea, and China — to initiate negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys a relationship of trust with Kim and thus may be able to persuade him that only by abiding by international law will he ensure his country’s future and that this, indeed, is the only option left open to him. But Putin needs to be convinced to take the lead. His hope for better relations with Japan gives Japan’s leaders leeway to nudge him in this direction.

Undoubtedly, most Japanese strongly support the U.S.-Japan alliance. While unequivocally commending America’s tough stance in pressuring Iraq, Japan should not hesitate to deliver a clear message to the U.S.: Exercise patience to avoid war. But Japan’s government also must stop prevaricating with the Japanese people: It should welcome and encourage debate about Japan’s defense posture without fearing that the U.S.-Japan friendship is so fragile that it will be destroyed.

The benefits and burdens of international affairs must become subjects of open debate in the Japanese Diet. A clear statement from the government, now rather than later, on what contribution Japan would make to any postwar reconstruction effort in Iraq is needed.

Japan must avoid repeating the unseemly scenario following Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when it wrote large checks to cover the war’s costs, yet had no say in the war’s conduct or war aims.

Transparency of this kind is needed if Japan is to make a stronger contribution to world affairs and help prevent the 21st century from becoming yet another century of war.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.