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The Changing Structure of International Political Opportunities

Prior to the end of the Cold War, the Japanese government had tried to strengthen Japan’s position in world politics, given its growing economic power. In this regard, Nakasone Yasuhiro’s contrite gestures toward South Korea and China—the expression of “deep regret” and the suspension of a prime ministerial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine—had been motivated by his nationalist ambition to remove the history problem as an obstacle preventing Japan from becoming a regional leader.7 Continuing the effort to increase Japan’s international influence, Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki showed further contrition when South Korean president Roh Tae Woo visited Japan in May 1990: “By sincerely reflecting on the fact that people in Korea experienced enormous sufferings and sorrows because of our country’s acts during a certain period of the past, I would like to clearly express my apology (owabi no kimochi).”8 Kaifu’s word choice suggested a more explicit acknowledgment of Japan’s past wrongdoings than his predecessors. Prime Minister Nakasone and Emperor Hirohito, for example, had used only the word “regret” (ikan) during President Chun Doo Hwan’s visit to Japan in September 1984.9 During the summit meeting, Kaifu also promised to offer four billion Japanese yen to subsidize medical treatment for South Korean A-bomb victims as well as to assist with the construction of a medical center for A-bomb victims in South Korea.10

Kaifu’s government found another opportunity to raise Japan’s international standing in August 1990 when the Iraqi military invaded Kuwait. While the UN Security Council condemned Iraq’s aggression and imposed economic sanctions, Iraq continued to occupy Kuwait. In response, the United States deployed its troops into Saudi Arabia and called for a coalition force to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. The United States first re?quested that the Japanese government provide financial support for the UN coalition force and deploy the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). But the majority of Japanese citizens did not support sending troops overseas because Article 9 of the constitution, renouncing war as a sovereign right, had become integral to postwar Japanese identity as a pacifist nation. Many LDP members, too, were unsure about overseas deployment of the SDF because of the constitutional restrictions.11 Kaifu’s government therefore decided not to send the SDF but to offer 13.5 billion dollars to support operations of the coalition force.

This prompted the United States and the UN coalition force to criticize Japan for trying to buy out the lives of its troops. This international criticism shocked LDP members, who had opposed the SDF’s overseas deployment on constitutional grounds. Since LDP members feared that Japan would lose its international standing, they eagerly sought a way to authorize the SDF to join peacekeeping operations after the Gulf War. In October 1990, Kaifu’s government submitted to the Diet the Bill on Cooperation for the UN Peacekeeping Operations, also known as the PKO Bill, to authorize the SDF to join UN peacekeeping operations outside Japan.12

The JSP and the JCP denounced the bill as a violation of the constitution. The LDP was unable to overcome the determined opposition because it had lost the majority in the House of Councillors during the 1989 election. Instead of creating a new law, Kaifu’s government decided to rely on the existing law and authorized the SDF to be deployed to the Gulf region in April 1991. This action drew strong criticism not only from the opposition parties and antiwar NGOs in Japan, but also from other Asian countries along the route that the SDF had to take to arrive in the Gulf region. Indeed, the year 1991 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Japan’s attacks on the Allied powers in Southeast Asia and on Pearl Harbor. To pacify criticisms from abroad, Kaifu visited member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from late April through early May. In Singapore, Kaifu gave a speech, expressing his “strong feeling of remorse (kibishiku hansei) for our country’s act that caused unbearable suffering and grief among many people in the Asia-Pacific region.”13 Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong, however, expressed his concern about the growing role of Japan in the region.14 Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew also argued that many people in Asia did not want Japan to join peacekeeping operations because allowing the overseas deployment of the SDF was “like giving a chocolate filled with whisky to an alcoholic”—that is, like giving more military power to a country unapologetic for its past wrongdoings.15 In addition, though acknowledging Japan’s effort to join international peacekeeping, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry expressed concerns, given Korean people’s “tragic experience [of Japan’s aggression] in the past.”16

Despite these criticisms, the Japanese government proceeded to deploy the SDF to the Gulf region and tried again to pass the PKO Bill in 1992, when the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia was established to manage a transition from civil war to democracy. Since peacekeeping operations in Cambodia were unlikely to involve combat, Komeito and the Democratic Socialist Party, though previously opposed to the 1990 PKO Bill, agreed to support the LDP this time. The other opposition parties, however, continued to criticize the bill. JSP member Ito Masatoshi faulted the LDP government, now headed by Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi, for having offered “neither apologies nor compensation for people that Japan victimized through its colonial rule and war of aggression. Such a country sending troops abroad is unacceptable for international society, which includes Asian peoples.”17 JCP member Kodama Kenji similarly criticized Miyazawa’s government for “sending our country’s troops to Asia again, even though the Japanese government has not apologized for the war of aggression or resolved postwar disputes.”18 In the end, the PKO Bill was passed in June 1992 with the support from Komeito and the Democratic Socialist Party.

The controversy surrounding the PKO Bill showed that the structure of political opportunities had changed in the post—Cold War period since it increasingly acquired an international dimension. In the immediate aftermath of the Asia-Pacific War, conservative politicians in power had been able to promote nationalism in Japan’s official commemoration without worrying about reactions from abroad. This had begun to change after the normalization of Japan’s relations with South Korea and China, and the end of the Cold War accelerated the internationalization of political opportunities. The LDP thus faced a difficult dilemma: if it wanted to boost national pride by raising Japan’s international standing through peacekeeping operations and other means, it had to make more contrite, cosmopolitan gestures toward other countries or at least tone down its nationalism. This dilemma deepened when “comfort women” (ianfu) became a diplomatic issue with South Korea in the midst of the national debate on the SDF’s overseas deployment.

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