[A-List] Japan: popular unease at Iraq policy
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Tue Mar 23 06:32:15 MST 2004
Koizumi haunted by Aznar's fate
After the Madrid bombing, many Japanese are questioning what price they may
pay for being seen as 'America's lackeys', reports Justin McCurry in Tokyo
Tuesday March 23, 2004
There was a time when a terrorist atrocity on the other side of the world
would have barely troubled Japan. To be sure, there would have been words of
condemnation from Tokyo, and of determination not to allow the bombers'
agenda to prevail.
But Japan's support for George Bush's 'war on terror' has changed all that.
By dint of that support, Japan, to the horror of many of its people, now
inhabits a far more dangerous world than it is accustomed to.
As the people of Spain dispensed with the government of José María Aznar,
angered by its handling of the aftermath of the Madrid bombings and
frightened by the bloody consequences of its support for the war in Iraq,
their Japanese counterparts were asking themselves one, chilling question:
could a similar outrage occur here?
Apparently so. In an email sent to the London-based Arabic newspaper,
al-Quds al-Arabi, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade threatened retaliation
against 'America's lackeys'. The group has claimed responsibility for the
Madrid bombings, though many analysts believe it lacks credibility.
"Our brigades are now preparing for a fresh strike," the message read. "Will
it be the turn of Japan, America, Italy, Britain or Australia?"
It was not the first time Japan had been named as a potential target. Last
October, a taped message attributed to Osama bin Laden named it as one of
several US allies on al-Qaida's hit list.
The tape was unsettling, but it did not stop the Japanese prime minister,
Junichiro Koizumi, from ordering the controversial deployment of
self-defence forces to help rebuild Iraq's shattered infrastructure.
The bloodshed in Madrid, however, offered a much more graphic foretaste of
the possible consequences of Japan's support for George Bush's mission in
Tokyo has sent about 350 ground troops on a humanitarian mission to Samawa,
southern Iraq, and more are on the way. Its contingent of air, naval and
ground forces will eventually reach about 1,000 - Japan's biggest overseas
military deployment since the second world war.
"Terrorist groups want to create confusion and make people worried, but we
should not be swayed," Mr. Koizumi said after the Madrid bombings.
His vow not to be "swayed" by the attacks coincided with a visible increase
in security at major railway stations and other public places. Nuclear power
plants, airports and government buildings have been on a heightened security
alert since Japanese troops received their orders to fly to Iraq at the end
of last year.
The new atmosphere of uncertainty in a country more accustomed to being a
distant observer of international terrorism, has invited comparisons with
Spain before the bombings set the stage for dramatic political change.
Mr Koizumi, like Mr Aznar before him, is unwavering in his support of the
war in Iraq. Japan's main opposition party, like José Luis Rodríguez
Zapatero's Spanish socialists, opposed their country's role in President
Bush's 'coalition of the willing' from day one. Mr Koizumi will also come
under scrutiny when Japan holds upper house elections in July.
Tokyo has played down the threat of an attack, although its contention that
Japan differs from Spain because it only went into Iraq after the war had
ended is puzzling: it is a distinction apparently not recognised by al-Qaida
and its associates.
"Japan's basic stance of providing support to humanitarian and
reconstruction efforts in Iraq will not be affected by the results of the
election in Spain," Mr Koizumi said.
While the Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, accused the US of
misleading his country into believing weapons of mass destruction existed in
Iraq, the Japanese government's top spokesman, Yasuo Fukuda, was trying to
sound even more American than the Americans.
Defending the US-led invasion, he said he believed there was "a strong
possibility" that weapons of mass destruction would still be found in Iraq.
"It is impossible that there are none."
It is too early to tell whether the fear generated by the Spain bombings
represents an opportunity for Japan's anti-war opposition party. The
Democrats find themselves in the politically unenviable position of knowing
that any boost in support would probably follow a terrorist outrage, here or
For their leader, Naoto Kan, the Madrid bombings were a clear sign that
Japan should remove its troops immediately. "If there is a high possibility
that the [Madrid bombings] were carried out by al-Qaida, then the same thing
could happen in Japan," he said.
His feelings were shared by tens of thousands of people who braved the cold
to join anti-war protests on Saturday, the first anniversary of the Iraq
Yet for the moment they are in the minority. An opinion poll in the Asahi
Shimbun showed public support for the troop deployment steady at 42 percent,
with opposition at 41 percent. According to the poll, conducted immediately
after the Madrid bombings, Mr Koizumi's personal approval rating has
increased slightly over the past month to 49 percent.
Even so, there are difficult times ahead for Mr Koizumi. He last made an
overseas visit last October, prompting accusations that his commitment to
other diplomatic duties is being lost amid his missionary zeal for the Iraq
The Spain bombings have only added to his workload. The Asahi quoted a
source close to the prime minister as saying: "It used to be that he used to
worry only about terror attacks in Iraq. Those days are gone. If Japan is
hit, Koizumi goes down."
On Saturday, Mr Koizumi showed no sign of retreating. "We must never buckle
under to terrorist threats," he said. "The war against terror is a long
haul. We have to commit ourselves."
But even in the final, chaotic months of the Saddam regime, the public was
deeply sceptical of claims that Iraq was synonymous with a terrorist threat
to Japan. It is only now, after their government has committed money, troops
and considerable political capital to the so-called war on terror, that
genuine fear has started to creep into their lives.
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