JAPAN is struggling hard not to be a loser in the Gulf war before the first battle. So far, almost everything the government has done - from hostage-handling to diplomacy - has been criticized both at home and abroad.
``Unless we can make a contribution other than a financial one,'' says Gaishi Hiraiwa, chairman of Japan's Federation of Economic Organizations, ``we cannot come out of the Gulf crisis as a member of the international community.''
At stake for Japan is not only the safeguarding of its supply of Middle East oil but also preventing an anti-Japan backlash in the United States.
Many observers and Japanese leaders see the crisis as a test of Japan's skills in global political leadership as an economic superpower. If Japan appears unwilling to share the risks in the Gulf, concludes Michael Armacost, US ambassador to Japan, that will influence how the rest of the world responds to Japan's desire to become a member of the United Nations Security Council.
A December poll of embassies in Tokyo by the Mainichi newspaper revealed that fewer than half of their respective governments would support either a permanent or nonpermanent council seat for Japan.
Unlike Germany, which after much hesitation has finally sent military planes to Turkey under the NATO umbrella, the Japanese government continues to be stymied by domestic opposition from sending its military to the Middle East. Japan does support the anti-Iraq resolutions of the UN.
Parliament even failed to vote on a government bill that would have authorized the first overseas deployment of troops since World War II. That put a black mark on the leadership of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.
According to an Asahi newspaper poll, the Japanese are divided somewhat evenly into three camps: those who support sending troops and money, those in favor of sending only money, and those opposed to anything but diplomatic measures.
A second bill, which would create a new ``peace corps'' of Japanese personnel separate from the military is promised by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). But such a bill would face tough opposition. And it would not likely be enacted until well after a Gulf war has begun or ended, leaving Japan vulnerable to US criticism that it is getting a ``free ride.'' Such criticism might add new pressure to revise or scrap the US-Japan security treaty, a keystone to the bilateral relationship.
``If fighting breaks out, Japan will be criticized for not being there,'' says Hiroyuki Kishino, a Japanese diplomat on leave as a research fellow. ``Many Japanese take peace as a given, not requiring any painful efforts,'' he says. ``This is thanks to Japan living under a US security arrangement for the last 45 years. This mentality is a problem, and will be very hard to change.''
Japanese officials say the proposed bill would let Japan's military participate in UN-sponsored actions. Japan is eager to join in a UN role in Cambodia after a settlement.
``Our impact in the global community is larger than we think,'' says Mr. Kaifu. ``We can't just expect to assist in the Gulf with money and so we must find other means of cooperating.''
To pass a new bill, the LDP still needs support from two small opposition parties. Ichiro Ozawa, LDP secretary-general, says that local elections in April will serve as a virtual referendum on the bill. A local election last November was seen as a referendum on the previous bill. That vote revealed lukewarm public support.
The Gulf crisis has shown to some observers that Japan may hope to fashion itself as a neutral player on the international scene, and not as a global US partner.
In fact, to prepare the second bill, the government sent a team of researchers to Scandinavian nations to study their experience as UN peace-keeping observers.
An attempt to send a group of volunteer medical workers to Saudi Arabia ended last week when the last doctors and nurses returned home. Japan originally had promised a 100-member team as its response to a US appeal for some sort of Japanese ``physical presence.'' But the project fizzled because of a lack of volunteers and an assumption among Japanese that the crisis is too distant, too dangerous, and not relevant to their daily lives.
Iraq's release of foreign hostages, including Japanese, also revealed a weakness in Japanese diplomacy. Returning hostages were openly angry at how Japanese diplomats dealt with the captives' plight. Not accustomed to its nationals being detained in other countries, the Japanese government had been pressured to strike a deal with Iraq. Two politicians traveled to Iraq and brought home some hostages. Emperor Akihito, who is required to steer clear of politics, felt moved to write a poem about the hostages and took the unusual step of revealing it.
Yasuhiro Nakasone, a former prime minister disgraced by a money scandal, has embarrassed Kaifu and the government by attempting his own diplomacy between Iraq and the US. The government was forced to publicly disavow any links with Mr. Nakasone's efforts.
Kaifu also tried to play peacemaker by sending a letter to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, urging him to open talks with the US and withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait. In a move apart from most of his Western partners, Kaifu said, ``Japan will provide Iraq with aid for economic reconstruction if it agrees to a peaceful resolution of the Gulf crisis.''
More than anything else, Japanese officials fear US criticism that Japan's financial contribution does not measure up to its stake in the crisis. So far, Japan has given $2 billion indirectly to help US forces, and has begun to disburse $2 billion in project loans to Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan. It first offered $1 billion, then added $3 billion more after threats from the US Congress.
The $4 billion is just ``an initial effort,'' says Richard Solomon, assistant US secretary of state for East Asian affairs. ``It is clear that the Gulf crisis will continue and we anticipate further support of this sort will be called for.''
But the crisis reveals a pacifist sentiment in Japan and a reluctance to do Washington's bidding on every issue. Japanese Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, for instance, opposes giving more aid to the US. ``As long as the situation in the Gulf does not change drastically, such [extra] contributions are unnecessary,'' he said.