AS other industrialized nations deploy forces to the Middle East, Japan is trying not to be the odd man out. But it is stymied by its own Constitution, which bans the ``use of force as [a] means to settle international disputes.''
Thus denied a military option as a response to the Iraqi invasion, Japan is in a quandary over how to rise to the expectations of its Western partners, especially since it depends on Middle East oil to keep its economy humming.
Divided and perplexed, the government decided on Monday to postpone a planned five-nation trip to the region by Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. The trip was to start today. Then on Tuesday, Mr. Kaifu was called by President Bush, who suggested that Japan give aid to those Middle East nations affected by the blockade of Iraq, officials said. Japan already provides aid to Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey. Kaifu told Mr. Bush he would study all ideas.
The official reason for the postponement was that Japan needed time to come up with ``concrete measures'' against Iraq other than the trade embargo imposed after the invasion.
How much time would be needed to decide on such measures? Given Japan's traditional slow way of reaching consensus on controversial problems, the earliest time would be the beginning of October, when Kaifu's trip would go ahead, a Foreign Ministry official says.
The trip, long in planning, was designed as a simple diplomatic showcase, mainly to keep up Middle East ties and to boost Kaifu at home. But with tension suddenly high, officials did not want Kaifu to be hit with unexpected demands, as he lacks authority for on-the-spot decisions.
And staying home was necessary for the prime minister to come up with the proper consensus, including garnering support from opposition parties, says Makota Watanabe, the Foreign Ministry's director-general for the Middle East and Africa.
This example of official uncertainty is one reason being given for a plunge on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. On Monday, the market fell more than 4 percent on the Nikkei Index and has lost more than 15 percent since the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.
Market analysts attribute the plunge largely to an expectation that the Bank of Japan will soon raise interest rates to stem inflation caused by a rise in oil prices.
To make up for the postponement of the Kaifu trip, Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama will visit the five nations (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, and Egypt) starting Friday to ask leaders of those countries for advice on how Japan should respond. Mr. Nakayama will bring offers of how Japan can participate with Arab nations or the West in squeezing Iraq further.
``It's important for Japan to make contributions that are called for,'' says Mr. Watanabe. He added that Washington has not requested Japanese support for Western military forces.
Other recent Middle East crises have put Japan on the spot. In 1987, during the Gulf crisis, it agreed to send naval minesweepers to protect Japanese ships, but never did so. It did send civilians for the United Nations force that mediated the cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war and for UN teams in Afghanistan and Namibia.