Reflections on Japan’s Post–Cold War Foreign Policy

The Gulf War and Japanese Diplomacy

Politics Society

More than 20 years have passed since the Gulf War, set off by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. The first international crisis since the end of the Cold War rocked the Japanese government and brought the shortcomings of Japanese diplomacy painfully into the open. We look back on the “Gulf shock” and its lasting consequences for Japan’s foreign policy.

The Gulf War, which began with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, was the first major international crisis since the end of the Cold War. For Japan, the war represented a rude awakening to the realities of the post–Cold War world, and resulted in what some Japanese commentators have referred to as Japan’s Gulf War “shock” or “trauma.” Twenty years on, it is worth taking a fresh look at the Gulf War and what it meant for Japan. Why was Japan so slow to react to events? And what lasting impact did the war have on Japanese foreign policy in the years that followed?

Japanese Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki meets with US President George H. W. Bush in a New York hotel (September 29, 1990). (Photo: Jiji Press)

Japan’s initial response to the crisis was actually quite speedy and clear: Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki’s government imposed economic sanctions against Iraq on August 5—a day before the United Nations Security Council moved to do so. In retrospect, however, this early response already showed one of the weaknesses of Japanese diplomacy. Although the Japanese government is quick to respond in cases where there is a historical precedent, unexpected situations tend to plunge it into a state of confusion over basic policy from which it finds it difficult to extricate itself. The Kaifu government’s response to the Gulf crisis leaned heavily on Japan’s experiences during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the lessons drawn from those events. Essentially, the Japanese government interpreted what was happening in the Persian Gulf as a situation similar to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and, without deep thought, figured that it would follow the same sort of pattern—that the major Western powers would extend support to local resistance forces without becoming directly embroiled in a regional conflict in the Middle East.

Tough Choice: Should Japan Support Military Action?

In fact, the international situation and Japan’s position had changed considerably during the 1980s. The Cold War had moved swiftly to a conclusion. The Berlin Wall had come down in November 1989, the year before Iraq invaded Kuwait, and in Malta that December US President George H. W. Bush and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev had declared the Cold War over. Despite the Tiananmen Square protests that had rocked China in June 1989, Deng Xiaoping was insisting that his reform and liberalization movement would continue, and China adopted an increasingly cooperative stance toward the West in the early 1990s. US Secretary of State James Baker was on a visit to the Soviet Union when the invasion took place. The United States and the Soviet Union immediately issued a joint declaration condemning Iraq. The Gulf crisis was seen as a test case for improving US-Soviet relations—and the UN Security Council, so often paralyzed by superpower rivalry during the Cold War, played a leading role in the international response to the crisis. With the Security Council legitimizing the use of military force, and the United States contributing its formidable military power, Japan was expected to provide clear support for military action, in light both of its stated commitment to a “UN-centered” foreign policy and the reality of its military alliance with the United States.

At the same time, international suspicion of Japan had been mounting since the second half of the 1980s, including in the United States, following Japan’s rise to economic superpower status through its expansionary financial policies. Theories of Japanese exceptionalism were rife, and there was a widespread feeling that Japan, interested only in its own interests, was out to dominate other countries economically. Such views had gained a certain currency in the United States, both in Congress and among the general public. The discovery that a subsidiary of the Toshiba Corporation had exported machine tools to the Soviet Union in 1987, in violation of the rules of COCOM (Coordinating Committee for Export Control) limiting technology exports to the Communist bloc, unleashed a major political backlash in the United States. Congress cancelled preexisting agreements between the Japanese and US governments and amended plans for the joint development of the FSX, a planned new support fighter for Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force. And the insensitive behavior of Japanese corporations, as seen in the purchases of such American cultural landmarks as the Rockefeller Center (Mitsubishi Estate) and Colombia Pictures (Sony) in 1989, left Japan open to accusations of arrogance.

Japan’s Refusal to Contribute Personnel

US Ambassador Michael Armacost visits Japanese Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru on his appointment as ambassador (May 18, 1989). (Photo: Jiji Press)

Another factor was the discovery of the Recruit scandal in 1989, just as Japan was at the height of its economic success. The scandal seriously shook the political system led by the Liberal Democratic Party, and by the time the Gulf crisis struck the following year, the opposition parties had won a majority in the upper house of the National Diet. Within the LDP itself, Prime Minister Kaifu had only a relatively weak political base of his own and was dependent on support from the members of the powerful Takeshita faction, particularly Ozawa Ichirō, who held the key post of party secretary general. In these circumstances, the need to respond promptly to the situation in the Gulf forced Japan into an extremely tight corner.

It was clear that Japan had very little leeway in terms of making a military contribution. No unit of the Self-Defense Forces had ever been sent on a mission outside the country, and both the legal provisions and the training required for such action were lacking. It was clear that the biggest contribution Japan could make was in financial and material aid. But a purely economic contribution was fated to come in for strong criticism from countries that were supplying troops, particularly the United States. Japan’s failure to dispatch personnel strengthened the impression of Japan as a self-centered mercantilist state. Not only did this increase anti-Japanese sentiment; it also threatened to become a factor in the debate within the United States, where opposition to the use of force was mounting. This was enough to make Washington push Tokyo hard to make something more than a merely monetary contribution. Michael Armacost, the US ambassador to Japan at the time, got the nickname “Misutā Gaiatsu” (Mr. External Pressure).

In reality, Japan had not always shown unquestioning support for US policy in the Middle East. Japan continued to maintain diplomatic relations with Iran, for example, even after the Islamic revolution. Confronted with the crisis in the Gulf, some people in Japan suggested that the time had come for Japan to distance itself from the United States and use its own methods to persuade Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. In concrete terms, Japan’s policy options were limited—but with Japanese citizens being held hostage alongside Westerners in Iraq, the argument that Japan should minimize its support for the coalition was one that appealed to the national mood.

In these conditions, the Japanese government’s response can only be described as confused. President Bush requested Japanese support in the areas of transport and supply, where the United States’ own resources were stretched to their limits for a time in the midst of logistical planning for sending large numbers of troops to the Gulf. Because of the lack of a framework that would allow Japan to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces to the Gulf, the government considered the possibility of chartering commercial ships and aircraft instead. But private-sector firms were reluctant to undertake missions to a war zone. When senior Japanese diplomat Tanba Minoru informed the United States that Japan could do virtually nothing to help in this respect, the Americans responded by noting that many of the ships then in the Persian Gulf were bound for Japan. The implicit suggestion was that Japanese shippers were willing to take risks when it was for the economic benefit of their own country.

Japan Donates $13 Billion in Support

Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki and Finance Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō shake hands during the Gulf War, after a bill is passed approving an additional $9 billion of Japanese support for the international coalition (February 28, 1991). (Photo: Jiji Press)

After the Americans made their displeasure clear to Tanba, Japan announced on August 29 that it would contribute funding to the coalition against Iraq. But the initial announcement referred to a figure of only $10 million. The next day, following an extremely frosty American response, the Ministry of Finance came out with an amended figure of $1 billion. In fact, this was the amount that had been on the table in internal government discussions from the outset, but the ineptness of the announcement only served to strengthen the impression of Japan as a self-centered country that would not contribute to international efforts without external pressure. Anxious not to alienate the Americans any further, the Japanese government later supplemented this amount with further funding, ultimately bringing the total to some $13 billion. But a dispute arose between Tokyo and Washington regarding the $9 billion of support that Japan announced after the opening of hostilities by the coalition. Was this amount denominated in yen or dollars? US Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and Japanese Finance Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō came to a speedy agreement on the extent of Japanese support, but no clear announcement was made on the currency question. Following exchange rate fluctuations, Japan announced that the contribution would be denominated in yen, only for the United States to demand payment in dollars. In the end, Japan yielded—but squabbles of this kind over technical details did not make a good impression.

While this was going on, the Kaifu government submitted a “United Nations Peace Cooperation Bill” to the Diet in October in an attempt to provide the legal framework for Japan to contribute personnel. But three was no consensus even within the political leadership over the status of the personnel to be dispatched. Prime Minister Kaifu was leery of sending SDF units to the Gulf; even if members of the SDF were dispatched, he thought they should go under the auspices of a different organization. LDP Secretary General Ozawa Ichirō, by contrast, insisted that even under the existing constitution it was permissible for Japanese soldiers to take part in UN-organized operations for collective security, and argued for Japanese forces to be sent to the Gulf under the SDF banner. Opinion was similarly divided within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This split dimmed the prospects for passage of the legislation. And with the opposition holding a majority in the upper house of the Diet, it was unlikely that any sort of bill authorizing the dispatch of the SDF would pass. Only around 20% of the population was in favor of such a move. There was an impassioned debate within the government, but in the end the bill was shelved on November 8.

The government also failed to take any noteworthy action to secure the release of the Japanese citizens being held effectively as hostages in Iraq. Japan had little leeway for negotiations with Iraq—and even if it had dealt directly with Baghdad and secured the release of Japanese citizens, there was a concern that this might lead to increased criticism of Japan for acting in its own interests. With military action imminent, the Japanese hostages were eventually released in late November, after various efforts including a visit to Iraq by former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro as a special emissary. But given that the remaining Western hostages were released the following day, it seems likely that this decision represented a last-ditch Iraqi attempt to influence international opinion rather than the result of successful Japanese diplomacy.

A Lingering Sense of Failure

Self-Defense Force troops on their way to contribute to remote-control mine disposal efforts (June 19, 1991). (Photo:Marine Self-Defense Forces; Jiji Press)

The international coalition began its attack on Iraq at 3 AM local time on January 17, 1991. Official notification was given by US Secretary of State James Baker to Murata Ryōhei, the Japanese ambassador in Washington, and to Foreign Minister Nakayama Tarō 30 minutes before the attack began. The war turned out to be a demonstration of the overwhelming superiority of American military power. In addition to devastating air raids, American Patriot missiles were credited with amazing successes in shooting down Iraqi Scud missiles (though it later emerged that their strike rate was rather lower than originally believed). The live coverage of events provided by the new American news channel CNN astonished the world. In Japan as elsewhere, people sat transfixed in front of their televisions and watched the war unfold in real time.

Of course, it was not the case that Japan did nothing. Our country in fact made considerable efforts on the ground. Materiel contributions, from four-wheel drive vehicles to Walkmans, were gratefully received by troops. Japanese civilians and diplomats who remained behind in Iraq persevered despite harsh conditions. Japanese funding went through smoothly, and coalition commander General Norman Schwarzkopf expressed his deep gratitude to Japan. After the war ended in April 1991, a mine-clearing unit from the Marine Self-Defense Force was dispatched to work on minefields in the Persian Gulf, following a decision that minesweeping operations were permissible under the existing legislation governing SDF activities. But despite these efforts on the ground, the overall experience of the Gulf War left Japanese diplomats with a deep sense of failure. Whether the omission of Japan’s name from Kuwait’s official expression of thanks was deliberate or accidental is not known.(*1)

 But it is undeniable that Japan got poor marks from the international community for its contribution to the Gulf War, and that the prestige of Japanese diplomacy suffered as a result.

The Lessons Drawn from Japan’s Gulf War Experiences

What lessons did Japan learn from its experiences in the Gulf War? First of all, the fact that our country had been all but impotent in the face of an international conflict, even at a time when its postwar economic prosperity was at its apogee, brought an awareness of Japan’s weakness in terms of supporting and maintaining the postwar international order. The “Gulf shock” made Japan aware of the need to contribute personnel to international efforts, and in 1992 the International Peace Cooperation Law was passed in the face of strong political opposition. This allowed limited participation by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in United Nations peacekeeping operations, and the following year the SDF were dispatched on their first such mission, joining the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia following the end of the civil war in that country.

The Gulf War also deepened the debate on Japan’s alliances and national security policy. Politicians began to talk explicitly about the importance of the Japan-US security alliance, and in 1997 Tokyo and Washington formulated a set of “Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation” with an eye to a possible emergency contingency on the Korean Peninsula. The two countries subsequently introduced a joint missile defense system following North Korean missile launches.

Japanese SDF members in the city of Takeo, Cambodia, undertaking peacekeeping operations with the cooperation of the local people (October 8, 1992). (Photo: Jiji Press)

Considering the chaos and confusion of the Gulf War period, these changes might seem to have taken place surprisingly smoothly. To a certain extent, it is fair to say that the Japanese once again showed their ability to learn from past mistakes. But this was not all—during the 1990s and into the first years of the twenty-first century, Japan used this framework to pursue reform of the UN Security Council and strengthening of the Japan-US alliance.

Weakness in Strategic Decision-Making

This approach was based on the assumption that the system of international cooperation in which United States had taken the lead through the Gulf War, backed up by its overwhelming military and technological supremacy, would continue. Japan sought to build its own diplomacy and national security policy around the alliance with the United States within the context of an international order founded on cooperation. This basic thinking has not changed substantially ever since the Gulf War, despite the waning of the international consensus over the past two decades, along with the increased American inclination toward unilateral action. But with the United States’ pursuit of two asymmetrical wars in Central Asia and the Middle East, it has become clear that there are limits even to America’s much vaunted military might. American hegemony no longer looks quite so secure. The rise of the newly emerging economies has brought additional complications to international cooperation between the world’s leading powers. There is a risk that the weaknesses of Japanese diplomacy laid bare by the Gulf War might come to the fore again.

The first weakness concerns Japan’s diplomatic identity: What kind of role should Japan play in international politics? Since the end of World War II, Japan has renounced military force as an instrument of foreign policy and relied exclusively on peaceful economic means. Questions of military legitimacy continue to be hot issues today. Is it legitimate for SDF members participating in peacekeeping operations to use force of arms? Does the right of collective defense extend to Japanese soldiers defending US forces when they come under enemy fire? Such questions are highly significant, and not just for the technical reason that interpretations happen to be shifting. The continuing debate over these issues reflects the lack of a clear consensus within Japan about the identity that the country has maintained since the war: How much of it should be retained, and how much of it needs to be reassessed?

The second weakness concerns the government’s strategic decision-making in the face of a major crisis that cannot be resolved within existing frameworks. There are many aspects to this problem, from intelligence gathering to sectionalism among bureaucrats and the uneasy relationship between politicians and the bureaucracy. These continue to be major issues today. In recent years, the government’s handling of the territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands and its bumbling response to the earthquake disaster of March 11 and the nuclear crisis that followed have made it clear that its ability to respond to unexpected events still leaves much to be desired.

It cannot be said that Japan has overcome the experiences of the Gulf War. The crisis and its effects continue to cast a shadow over Japanese diplomacy to this day.

(*1) ^ In March 1991, after the war ended, the government of Kuwait published a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and other major newspapers thanking the UN coalition for liberating its country. The ad listed dozens of countries that had assisted, but Japan was not among them.—Ed.

Gulf War Iraq Kaifu Toshiki Nakanishi Hiroshi International Peace Cooperation Bill Japan-US Alliance George H. W. Bush PKO Ozawa Ichiro Kuwait Hashimoto Ryutaro Japanese exceptionalism UN-centrism