U.S.-Japanese Security Relations: Adjusting to Change

March 14, 1991 • Foreign Policy Briefing No. 7

Japan remained aloof while the U.S.-led international coalition waged war against Iraq, and Tokyo’s cautious policy has attracted a great deal of criticism. The contributions of the Japanese, relative to their capabilities and to what they stand to lose from a protracted struggle in the Persian Gulf region, have raised serious questions about the nature of the U.S.-Japanese relationship and about Japanese foreign policy as a whole.

Long before the onset of Operation Desert Storm, members of Congress, as well as the people who elected them, asked why Japan, a nation clearly capable of providing substantial military and economic assistance for the massive military build‐​up in the gulf, remained only a nominal player. With the federal budget deficit and other economic problems looming ever larger, there is no shortage of criticism of Japan. “The Japanese,” said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D‐​Colo.), during the early weeks of the Persian Gulf crisis, “are laughing all the way to the bank.”[1] Tokyo’s initial pledge of $4 billion to help offset the costs of Operation Desert Shield and its subsequent pledge of an additional $9 billion to defray some of the $500 million to $1 billion a day expenses of Operation Desert Storm have only marginally placated American critics.

The reluctance of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu’s government to provide greater support for the U.S.-led intervention in the Persian Gulf is not entirely due to the influence of domestic constituencies that have traditionally opposed the use of military force. To be sure, those constituencies remain strong, but Kaifu and his ministers have insisted that Japan, which receives over 60 percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf, has too much at stake to remain on the sidelines, and at one point the government cautiously proposed sending a small contingent of noncombat personnel to the gulf.

Resistance to Kaifu’s message on the part of a significant portion of the Japanese population is one reason for Japan’s relative inaction.[2] There is another as well–the policy “hangover” from the longstanding U.S. opposition to any manifestation of Japanese military initiative. It is inappropriate for U.S. leaders who created, nurtured, and insisted upon Japanese diffidence regarding military affairs for four and a half decades to now complain about that diffidence.

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