Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's push to take a more active role in Iraq continues a trend of increasing boldness in Japan's security policy - and breaks new ground for the use of Japan's military forces overseas.
Countries such as Germany and France have been reluctant to send troops to Iraq without a UN mandate. But despite intense efforts by opposition parties, Japan's upper house of parliament is expected Friday to clear the way for Japanese Self Defense Forces (SDF) to assist the US-led coalition in rebuilding as well as providing logistical support to the occupying troops.
The move indicates "a maturation of security policy that has been going on since the early 1990s," says Jim Przystup of the National Defense University in Washington. It "represents a growing realism in the way that Japan looks at the world, and at its military alliance with the US."
Ostensibly, the SDF would be sent as part of a mission similar to one to East Timor last year to assist in engineering efforts, such as restoring the water supply.
But the ongoing violence in Baghdad means SDF soldiers may have little choice but to act in self-defense, perhaps taking lives in the process - a position Japan has long sought to avoid. Many say that sending SDF soldiers to Iraq would fly in the face of Japan's Constitution, which rejects the use of force to solve international disputes. And any public outcry over SDF safety in Iraq could expose Mr. Koizumi's leadership to the kind of political criticism currently buffeting the Bush and Blair administrations.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Koizumi pushed through a law to allow the SDF to be sent to the Indian Ocean to help with supplies as part of the war in Afghanistan, marking the first overseas dispatch of Japanese troops to a theater of conflict since World War II. The government extended the six-month law several times.
Building bridges in East Timor and restoring water in Iraq may appear similar on the surface, but the latest dispatch of troops would differ in two key ways, analysts say.
Previous SDF forays overseas have been under the auspices of a UN-led peacekeeping operation, or leadership of another international organization such as NATO. In contrast, the attack on Iraq was an American and British initiative - and one based on intelligence reports that have come under fire.
While Japanese assistance in Afghanistan could be considered part of a US self- defense action in the wake of Sept. 11, some observers argue that helping US forces in Iraq suggests cooperating with an aggressive operation.
Second, questions exist over public support for the Iraq dispatch. Opposition to the bill to allow the SDF to be sent to Iraq has steadily risen in various polls - to 55 percent in a survey by Asahi newspaper taken over the weekend, from 41 percent in late June and 49 percent in early July. The latest poll by the major daily suggests a growing nervousness in Japan over the dangers involved in the face of ongoing attacks on US troops.
The government has also expressed concerns. Last week, Japan's top government spokesman ruled out granting a reported US request to post the SDF in Balad, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
"The security situation in Balad is not good. Under the current circumstances, it would be difficult" for Japan to dispatch SDF troops there, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told reporters, according to Kyodo News.
With Koizumi up for reelection in an intraparty vote on Sept. 20, the last thing he wants to hand his rivals for leadership is the possibility of casualties from Iraq.
In addition, if the occupation continues for three or four years, as US military personnel have suggested, support both at home and internationally for a Japanese presence in Iraq may slip.
Japan has taken steps to overcome the ugly legacy left by its aggression in World War II, the scars of which are still vivid throughout much of Asia.
Despite a decade-long economic slump, Japan was the world's top overseas development assistance donor from 1990 to 2000. In 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, Japan provided overseas aid totaling $9.847 billion, the second-highest amount behind the US.
While the majority of the aid goes to Asian countries, Japan donated more than $300 million to the Middle East in 2001.
Any drop in international support among Middle Eastern countries, or Asian nations with painful memories of Japanese brutality, might jeopardize Koizumi's chances of attaining permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council with veto power, a long cherished goal.
Ironically, the issue appears to be back on the table as a result of Koizumi's backing of the US and British involvement in Iraq. Some observers have suggested the possibility of a permanent seat on the UN may be one motivation behind Koizumi's enthusiasm for Bush's war on terrorism.
The weak Japanese economy may also be a factor.
"As long as Japan is a strong military ally," the US is likely to continue to tolerate Japan's efforts to keep the yen from strengthening, says analyst Marshall Gittler of Deutsche Bank in Tokyo. A weaker yen enables Japanese firms to price goods attractively abroad.