THE Gulf crisis has put Japan's government in what one American analyst calls a ``nightmarish'' predicament. Japan imports 70 percent of its oil from the Mideast. Although its reserves are deep enough to weather a short-term disruption in the world market, Japan is loath to alienate major oil producers. At the same time, Japan has strong security and economic ties to the United States and the West. It doesn't want to get on the wrong side of the Western community in the Gulf dispute.
Japan promptly endorsed the United Nations embargo, but since then Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu's government has been floundering about in search of a policy. Mr. Kaifu was scheduled last week to visit some of the Mideast countries arrayed against Saddam Hussein, but he canceled the trip when his advisers were unable to agree on what Japan might offer those countries besides moral support. Japan's foreign minister went instead.
One issue bedeviling Japan's policymakers is whether the country should have a military presence in the Gulf as part of the international force. Japan's constitution permits only defensive military actions, and Japanese public opinion has a powerful anti-military cast. Japan's east Asia neighbors also fear any hint of revived Rising Sun militarism.
Some Japanese assert, however, that the country constitutionally could send mine sweepers to the Gulf, since their mission would be defensive, and that this would demonstrate Japan's support of the moderate Arabs with more than just words. Even such a modest contribution to the international force could provoke a political firestorm for Mr. Kaifu, however, so sensitive is the issue. He couldn't be sure of support from ambitious rivals even in his own Liberal Democratic Party.
Yet Japan has benefited enormously from the stable world economic order and reasonable oil prices that Saddam threatens. It must do more than simply hold other nations' coats. If Japan cannot support the international effort with men, it should do so with money. Its wealth can help distribute the cost of the troop deployment and ease the economic pinch that countries like Egypt, Turkey, and others will feel in standing up to Saddam.