The Japan That Can Say, `We're Sorry'

Japan's halting response to the gulf crisis is now producing a secondary shock in Tokyo: humiliation and handwringing among politicians, executives, and ordinary Japanese over the government's lukewarm support for the U. S.-led anti-Saddam campaign. Some Japanese are organizing private aid for the gulf. And the government, worried about a backlash in the U. S., is scrambling to fashion a package of proposals, from Mideast rebuilding to arms control, for Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama to carry to Washington on Mar. 20.

Longer-term, some Japanese hope, the bout of national self-criticism may jolt leaders out of their habitual inertia. "This is one of the best things that ever happened," says Hirotaka Takeuchi, a professor at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University. "We've looked at our political leadership and realized it doesn't exist." But there's no clear sign yet of a national strategy for a more active Japanese role in the postwar Mideast. To spur Japan to take on larger global responsibilities, big doses of outside pressure, mainly from the U. S., are likely to be needed, as in the past.

FULL-PAGE AD. Among the most outspoken critics is Atsuyuki Sassa, the former director of the Cabinet Security Affairs Office, who said in a blistering speech that he was "ashamed" of the country's performance. Sassa organized 65 like-minded Japanese to buy a full-page newspaper ad expressing appreciation to the soldiers who fought in the gulf "for us." He is also leading an effort to mobilize nongovernment groups to form a disaster relief organization to help out in the gulf. Within the government, there are moves to organize better crisis management.

The current mood of frustration and self-examination extends far beyond the country's internationalized elite. Asks a woman barber in a Tokyo suburb: "Why did we Japanese get stuck with such mealymouthed politicians?" She knows that much of the world is disappointed, if not angry, with Japan. Japanese are especially anxious about attitudes in America, which most regard as Japan's only real friend.

They have reason for concern. One U. S. poll this month found that one in three Americans lost respect for Japan. A Bush Administration official professes gratitude for Tokyo's financial support but says there's high-level impatience with Japan "for taking so long to get this stuff through"--referring to Japan's $13 billion contribution to offset gulf costs. There's also disappointment that Tokyo never sent personnel to establish a Japanese "physical presence" in the gulf.

The problem, in part, is that Japan's institutions don't necessarily reflect the will of the people. It's true that pacifism and isolationism run deep in Japanese society, protected and nurtured by the U. S. and the "peace" constitution it imposed. Still, a survey by TV network NHK shows that more than half of all Japanese approved the attack against Iraq, and a plurality favored sending Self Defense Force aircraft to evacuate gulf refugees--which the government failed to do.

URGING RESTRAINT. To avoid damaging Japan's image further, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu and others are urging executives not to rush to the gulf to exploit postwar opportunities. In the U. S. Congress, legislators will be looking for such Japanese behavior to criticize while demanding concessions or restrictions on issues from trade to investment.

Despite these strains, an Administration official says, there is no alternative to strengthening the U. S.-Japan partnership, "given how deeply intertwined our societies and economies have become." Americans are frustrated partly because the Japanese, instead of originating their own ideas, continue to react only when prodded by the U. S. That's not likely to change soon. The challenge for the U. S. is to push deftly enough to avoid a nationalist, anti-American backlash.

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