Japan: Bush Reelection Means Even Closer Ties

TOKYO – Japan’s role in the U.S.-led war on terror is expected to grow in the wake of the reelection of U.S. President George W Bush, analysts here say.

"The pressure on Japan to get more involved in the American-led war on terrorism is obvious with the reelection of Bush," Azaho Mizushima, professor on constitutional issues at Waseda University, said in an interview.

Jitsuo Terashima, spokesman on defense issues of the Democratic Party in Japan, predicted a "period of uncertainty for Japan after Bush, as [Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi moves closer to support the U.S. was in Iraq."

Indeed, the Defense Agency said on Thursday that it has decided to form a contingent to replace Japan’s troops, called the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), currently in Iraq. This, according to Japanese press reports, readies the SDF for an extension after the end of its mission on Dec. 14.

The next contingent is reported to comprise fresh troops numbering 600 and will continue to provide humanitarian help in Samawah, southern Iraq next year. This would be the fourth contingent of SDF troops sent by Japan so far, according to the Defense Agency.

Koizumi, who has forged close personal ties with Bush, was quick to point out that bilateral ties would be served well under the U.S. president’s second term.

"I think his stance of putting emphasis on Japan will not change, and the relations of trust we have developed will have a positive effect on the future of Japan-U.S relations," he told reporters Thursday.

But despite the continued warmth between the United States and Japan at the government level, the dispatch of SDF troops to support U.S. troops – Japan’s first postwar SDF deployment to a conflict area – remains controversial among the pacifist public.

Indeed, while the Nov. 2 election in the United States was closely followed here in Japan, the United States’ closest ally in Asia, this took place against the backdrop of the cost of Tokyo’s links with U.S. international foreign policy – the return Wednesday evening of the body of a Japanese national slain by militants in Iraq.

Militants claimed responsibility for the execution of 24-year-old Shosei Koda, a backpacker. On Oct. 27, they threatened to behead him if Japan did not withdraw SDF forces from Samawah in 48 hours.

Koda is the latest of a small number of Japanese casualties in Iraq. Koizumi has rejected demands by hostage-takers.

The latest poll, taken in October, shows that 63 percent of Japanese are against getting embroiled in Iraq.

But hope that Japan will change its approach of following U.S. international policy is all but gone at this point, says Yuko Akiyama of Peace Depot, a non-governmental organization.

She sees the emergence of a stronger Bush as sending Japan on a slippery path away from its postwar pacifism. The United Nations will also increasingly be called on to support U.S aspirations to flex its superpower muscle in the world, she adds.

Worried by the expectation that Koizumi would be even more cooperative with a U.S. foreign policy criticized for its unilateralism, Japanese opposition parties have urged Tokyo to become more independent from Washington.

"It is important for the Japanese government to be outspoken and not be a mere subcontractor of the United States," they said in a statement.

Analysts add that stronger ties between the United States and Japan may see Japan easing its arms control and even moving into arms exports, which is being advocated by the private sector and the Defense Agency. At present, Japan is involved in the joint development and production of missile defense systems with the United States.

The current arms control policy effectively prevents Japan from the development or export of arms.

Meantime, local media reports say that members of the SDF expressed resignation over Bush’s victory. "To be honest, nobody wants to go to Iraq, even though it is our job to follow orders," said an SDF member stationed in Komaki base in Aichi prefecture, central Japan.

In editorials, even conservative newspapers such as Sankei, a national daily, warn Bush to take care to observe international standards in U.S. foreign policy during his second term in office. "The world’s only superpower must also take heed of its responsibilities," the Sankei editorial pointed out Thursday.