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Image of a good America has faded

DISCUSSIONS | May 31, 2006

Sayuri Daimon, Tokyo

2001 Nieman fellow; editor of national news, The Japan Times, Tokyo

As in many other countries, people's perception of America appears to be changing in Japan, especially due to the Iraq War. Prior to 9/11, most Japanese held good feelings toward America, except for some residents of Japan's southernmost island of Okinawa, where there is a heavy U.S. military presence and anti-U.S. rallies have occasionally been observed.

Those who had witnessed the end of the war with the U.S., like my parents, especially believe that Americans released Japan from the prewar military dictatorship and brought democracy. They strongly feel that Japan enjoys peace and stability because it is being protected by America through the Japan-U.S. Security Pact.

This kind of positive feeling about the U.S. also stems from Article 9 of the Constitution, which was created soon after the war with the initiative of the U.S. Occupation Forces. Article 9 stipulates that Japan forever renounces war and will hold no military power. Many Japanese are still proud of this clause and see it as the pillar of democracy in Japan.

Though Japan later created its Self-Defense Forces, their overseas activities are strictly limited, and their main task has always been Japan’s self-defense. Even during the Gulf War, Japan did not send troops.

However, the situations is drastically different, due to a significant change in SDF operations. Since 9/11, the Japanese government, as a U.S. major ally, has sent refueling vessels to the Indian Ocean to help the U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan. It also supported the U.S. in the war against Iraq and dispatched some 600 troops of Ground Self-Defense Force to southern Iraq for humanitarian and reconstruction aid. Because of these, people fear that Japanese forces' activities may be seen as part of U.S. military operations and become target of terrorists’ attacks.

Such concerns could also be seen in a government survey released in early May. It showed that 45 percent of the public is worried about the possibility of the country getting involved in a war, the highest figure since the poll was started in September 1969.

The poll also found record-high interest – 67.4 percent – in defense issues and the activities of the SDF. The previous record was 67.3 percent in a poll conducted in 1991, weeks after the U.S. launched the Gulf War against Iraq. And a Defense Agency official said that the SDF activity that drew the most attention was the mission in Iraq. With the media reporting misdeeds by U.S. military in Iraq, an increasing number of Japanese have become critical about the U.S. operation in Iraq. 

Though the government wants to maintain a close relationship with the U.S., I think the image of a good America is unlikely to come back anytime soon.

Feeling that the U.S. is no longer a safe destination for students, more Japanese parents nowadays send their children to Australia, instead of the U.S., for English education.

Popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who became a close friend of U.S. President George W. Bush and supported the U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, is stepping down in September. That may also be a negative factor to the Japan-U.S. relations.

Many Japanese still remember the generosity Americans showed after the war and how it helped us to grow into a developed nation. Many still hope that the U.S. will play the role of a good world leader. I think the key to the U.S. regaining trust of the international community depends on whether it can solve various issues without resorting to its military power.

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