Post-Saddam Iraq: Not Much for Japan

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2003

War coverage exposes dysfunctional Japanese attitudes, argues Michael E. Stanley

by Michael E. Stanley

THE SECOND GULF WAR is now sliding into the past tense. What will follow -- the largest, most intense postwar reconstruction since World War II -- is still in its fledgling stages. But "reconstruction" is surely too narrow in meaning for what is going to take place in Iraq.

The nation in question sits on the world's second-largest oil reserves; it not only needs to recover the infrastructure it once had, but it also requires even more new infrastructure to maximize its potential in years to come. With the United States -- the world's sole superpower and also its largest consumer of petroleum -- setting the course for Iraq, it is not difficult to see a chain of events that will eventually outflank OPEC.

In order to pay for its vital new infrastructure, Iraq will of course have to step up oil production. With Saudi Arabia approaching a state of crisis that could easily see it slip into near-anarchy in the not-too-distant future, direct US access to Iraqi oil will provide a stable, uninterrupted flow of crude. The toppling of Iraq's Baathist government was carried out under the slogan "Operation Iraqi Freedom." If "Operation Iraqi Liberation" had been chosen, the resulting acronym would have succinctly described the true motive of the war effort: Oil.

The war in Iraq amply demonstrated
that Japan is out of the picture

There is, first of all, an interesting set of comparisons between the media coverage in Japan of the assault on Saddam's regime and of the combat in Afghanistan that followed September 11. While the overall themes were fairly similar, there was one major point of difference between the two that sharply revealed an aspect of the Japanese mindset. Furthermore, this difference points to a deeper problem -- one that is affecting the health of Japan now and will do so well into the future.

In both cases Japan's mainstream media intensely followed the developments leading up to the opening of hostilities and then delivered detailed reporting of the conflicts themselves. But during the Iraq campaign it was clear that the emerging crisis surrounding North Korea was a driving force behind the Japanese media coverage of the US forces' conduct in Iraq.

"If it came to open conflict in Korea, would (or could) the US protect Japan from any extension of that war?" was the central -- but mostly unspoken -- question. The moral issues of Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule and the ensuing debate over Iraq's production and possession of weapons of mass destruction effectively became points of academic argument in the newsrooms. It soon seemed the war was no more than large-scale melodramatic events happening somewhere else -- with plenty of riveting action footage arriving daily. Iraq was the ultimate in reality entertainment.

The attitude of the time is distinctly captured in the Japanese idiom taigan no kasai shisuru, which means "watching a fire on a river's opposite bank." This point of view was not generated solely in the news centers. It was already representative of an attitude in a large proportion of Japan's population. Iraq itself was of no real import, despite some speculation that Japan might have a stake in Iraq's reconstruction. Japan will have a stake, but it will be miniscule compared to what will go elsewhere.

The Japanese government naturally extended words and gestures of support to the US-led military effort in Iraq, but the overall impression in, for example, the Fuji TV newsroom was that these were unavoidable consequences of the US-Japan defense and trade relationships. It was clear that if the North Koreans were to fire another Taepodong over Japan, or were to actively demonstrate their claimed nuclear weapons capability, Japan on its own could do nothing with any serious weight. All this despite the February assertion by Defense Agency Director-General Ishiba that Japan might strike in self defense at North Korea if its satellites detected the North Koreans fueling a missile in preparation for a launch. Feisty words from a politician who is obviously grandstanding with future elections in mind. But what could Japan really do? What options might it have? The answer is: Not much. Unless the Japanese government could manage to invoke the US-Japan Security Treaty and persuade the US to stage a preemptive strike for Japan's "defense."

The war in Iraq became a showcase for the options the US might have for use against North Korea, and discussion of this aspect was the real focus of attention in the Japanese newsrooms. Despite all the changes in the world, and especially those in Asia, it seems clear that Japan has not outgrown its dependence on the Cold War status quo, and under current circumstances cannot technically do so.

This refusal to move forward with changing circumstances is rooted in Japanese organizational thinking. Until the end of the Cold War, Japan's protected economic clout and its cozy defense "partnership" with the United States kept it in a greenhouse where the weed of complacency took root and grew to enormous proportions. The end result is the effectively dysfunctional leadership that now undermines both the evolution and implementation of policy. This is the common basis of Japan's current difficulties. Such complacency will absolutely guarantee that Japan, still the world's No. 2 economy, will begin to move farther and farther down the scale as other nations with a more realistic, flexible organizational mindset outstrip it. It will do so with gathering momentum as time passes. This process is already partially visible; China is well positioned to apply its energy and resources to surpass Japan in the near future.

What does Iraq have to do with this paralyzed mindset in Japan? Quite simply, the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the resuscitation and redirection of Iraq had the potential to be a 24-karat chance for Japan to apply diplomatic, technical and trade expertise appropriate to a nation of economic standing. Japan blew it. The country did little more than stand on the sidelines wringing its hands over the unhappy developments on the Korean peninsula. The attitude in the newsrooms reflected that of the nation's leadership, showing no real chutzpah over the Iraqi issue in any direction.

What will result from this paralyzing complacency? Irrelevance. Japan is slipping away from a position of whatever importance it once held in the international arena. Japan will cease to be a contender as its economic and diplomatic weight are further eroded. The war in Iraq and the reconstruction effort will amply demonstrate that Japan is out of the picture -- unless it manages to get its act together.

On May 16, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun ran the headline "Japanese Firms Winning Big Energy Orders in Persian Gulf." That sounds impressive, but a closer look at the article's text reveals, that some Japanese firms had managed to secure negotiating rights for a few projects or had taken partial stakes in new development companies. Nothing really challenging there, and nothing that to my mind sounds like the ''winning" of "big energy orders." The article's closing lines contain this hedging comment: "Major US and European petroleum companies are expected to win orders for the main aspects of the energy development, but there is room for Japanese firms to handle related projects." Look over those last 11 words. Behind them is this: Japanese companies are going to get a few crumbs, and that will be all. This is a warning -- Japan is slipping out of the picture. If Japan's political and business leaders fail to read this handwriting on the wall, the only future that awaits is one of accelerating irrelevance. That's the lesson I saw in the newsroom as the monitors blazed with combat footage; that's the message for the leadership of Japan. @

Michael E. Stanley is a freelance photographer and writer based in Chiba and a frequent contributor to J@pan Inc.

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