Vol. 5 Num 1141 Tue. August 14, 2007  

Closeup Japan
A Japan that can say no

Almost two decades ago, the deceased Sony chief Akio Morita joined hand with the Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara to co-author a book that was much criticized in the West, particularly in the United States, for being too nationalistic in its tone.

The book entitled Japan that can say no was the Japanese response to the prevailing Japan bashing mood in Washington throughout the 1980s, and it called on Japan to pursue a policy that would allow Tokyo to come out of the strong sphere of influence that Washington all along imposed on countries that belonged firmly to its political orbit.

Ishihara, a well-known hawkish politician with strong nationalistic ideas, was not taken that much seriously by the critics, as the position expressed in the book more or less coincided with what he had always been preaching. What surprised many in the West was the fact that Morita joined hands with him, more because it was boom time for Sony, a Japanese producer that was revered much in the world.

Both Ishihara and Morita urged Japan to try to find a self-identity that would allow Tokyo to disagree with Washington on issues that might run contrary to Japanese interest. But the timing of the publication was not right, as the Cold War was still on and it was easy for anyone taking such a standing to be blamed for helping the enemy. As a result, though the book created a sensation in Japan and abroad and became a best seller, it could hardly make a serious impact on politicians holding the balance of power.

Despite the call from two leading figures of Japanese politics, and the business world, to pursue a more assertive policy, Japan we know could not say "no" to Washington for very long, indeed, and is probably still unable to do so. But the wind of change, though not that strong yet, is now probably blowing all around the political arena of Japan, and if it gathers momentum Japan would probably be able to do exactly what many Japanese have wanted to do for quite long, which is to say "no" to the United States.

The first sign of that changing attitude was reflected recently in the firm stand taken by the opposition leader of Japan, Ichiro Ozawa, when he informed the US ambassador that his party would not be able to support the ruling coalition on a bill calling for the extension of an anti-terror law under which Japan's Maritime Self Defense Forces will be permitted to provide assistance to the naval vessels of the international coalition fighting in Afghanistan.

It is now clear that it was not only the main ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, New Komei Party, who were upset by the rout they had to suffer in last month's upper house election of the Japanese Diet. The United States, particularly the Bush administration, too, was upset and shocked. More because the timing of the election coincided with the submission of the bill to the Diet, which the ruling block was hoping would get a quick passage.

Japan enacted the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law in November 2001, just two months after the September 11 terrorist attack that prompted Washington to start a military invasion in Afghanistan to dislodge the Taliban regime. Japan had always been a wiling partner of the US foreign policy, and the then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi wasted no time in showing President George W. Bush how much Japan valued the bondage of friendship with Washington.

The law allowed Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces to dispatch a number of its fleets to the waters around Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to provide fuel to military vessels participating in the US-led military operation in Afghanistan. Initially enacted for two years, the duration of the law was subsequently extended twice by the Diet, and a third extension is now due before it expires on November 1.

During the earlier sessions of the Japanese parliament, when the law was debated, the opposition block, including the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), objected to the extension. The opposition block had all along been saying that the military operation in Afghanistan was essentially a US mission, and that it didn't have the necessary approval of the United Nations, an essential precondition for Japanese participation.

During last month's election campaign too, DPJ and other opposition parties made it clear that, should the opposition gain majority in the house, the passage of the bill to extend the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law would be blocked to show respect to the desire of the Japanese people.

The US embassy in Tokyo was definitely keeping a watchful eye on the situation. It was more because more and more of George Bush's coalition of willing partners were deserting him by opting out of such missions, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Losing a trusted ally like Japan would definitely be a serious dent in the coalition itself.

Soon after the election result was announced, making it clear that the opposition was by now capable of blocking the passage of any bill, US Ambassador Thomas Schieffer hurriedly express his desire to meet the opposition leader. The purpose, no doubt, was to convince the opposition leader of the importance of US-Japan alliance, and reassess the position of the party concerning the extension of the anti-terror law in the light of that importance.

Although Ozawa initially turned down the request, he eventually decided to accept the invitation after being told that the meeting would be on bilateral relationship in general. The meeting eventually took place last Wednesday, and the opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa told the ambassador that he had no intention of helping the ruling coalition extend the special measures law.

Ozawa was even blunt enough to make a comment that he thought the war in Afghanistan was one that President George W. Bush had started without the consensus of the international community. He also made it clear that he would use his party's new-found strength in the upper house to try to block the legislation.

The US ambassador, on his part, tried to convince the opposition leader that Japan's continued participation in the multinational coalition was vital, as the war in Afghanistan was a war on terrorism and not a war on Muslims. But Ozawa reminded the ambassador that peacekeeping activities undertaken by Japan would always be in the context of United nations-led activities.

Ozawa's bold stand is quite significant in the light of Tokyo's bilateral relations with Washington. He is the first high-level political figure in Japan who is plainly saying "no" to the most important strategic partner of the country. How long he will be able to hold that position remains uncertain, as within the main opposition there still remains a hawkish block that is willing to join hands with the governing coalition to pave the way for the legislation to be approved.

As a result, Ozawa's next test would be the taming of the rebels within the party. Whatever the outcome of that test might be, he has already made an exemplary move by stepping out of the superficial reality that, until now, was written only in books like Japan that can say no.

Monzurul Huq is a Daily Star columnist.