Japan in the United Nations

On December 18, A.D. 1956, Japan was admitted to the United Nations by the General Assembly at the recommendation of the Security Council.1 Ironically, Japan, as a member of the Axis powers during World War II, was partly responsible for the creation of the United Nations, first as a wartime alliance against the Axis and then, in 1946, as a full-fledged international peacekeeping organization. And in this respect, Japan has seen the U.N. as a place where it could make up for its role in bringing about that war.

Japan’s most important goal in joining the United Nations was to bolster its national security.2 Many Japanese were quite enamored with this reasoning. Shortly before Japan was admitted to the United Nations, the government proclaimed that Japanese foreign policy would follow three basic principles. One, it would be “U.N.-centered.” Two, it would cooperate with the free democratic nations. Three, it would identify closely with the Asian countries. However, this notion of “U.N.-centered” diplomacy deteriorated somewhat in the years that followed as the limitations of the U.N. as an effective collective security system became known. Nevertheless, the United Nations has served as a valuable instrument for Japanese diplomacy. First, it has provided Japan with access to a wide range of nations. Second, it has remained the forum for Japan’s aspirations to contribute to world peace. Third, it has provided Japan with an arena of international politics in which it has been able to consolidate its relations with the Western nations, particularly the United States of America.3

As of 1993, Japan has now been a member of the United Nations for nearly 40 years. With the exception of a few of its immediate neighbors, Japan has, for the most part, made complete redress for its role in World War II in the eyes of the international community. Overall, however, Japan has contributed little to the U.N.’s mission. In fact, during the early years of its membership, Japan displayed a near total lack of initiative, except where its efforts to remove the “enemy clause” from the U.N. Charter were concerned.4 More often than not, Japan has shied away from taking a strong stance in the United Nations. In recent years, though, this has begun to change. Japan has begun to take a somewhat more active role in the U.N. but has still failed to provide the bold leadership expected of a nation of Japan’s stature.

Traditionally, the U.N. has been dominated by the United States. No country has been more visible, and no country has been more capable of mobilizing U.N. resources than the U.S. The 1980s, however, witnessed the emergence of Japan as an economic power second only to the United States. And to a certain extent Japan’s new status as an economic superpower has been reflected in the U.N.

It was upon Japan’s initiative in 1985 that the Group of High-Level Intergovernmental Experts was organized to examine ways to improve the administrative and financial system of the United Nations. After much debate, the 41st General Assembly voted in 1986 to adopt the report of this group. Though the Japanese initiative was severely criticized at times by various groups within the U.N., it ultimately proved successful and was recognized as a valuable contribution.5

Even earlier, Japan had taken the initiative at the 37th General Assembly, in 1982, to present a resolution on the peacekeeping functions of the U.N. Issued in response to the problems raised in the secretary-general’s annual report to the General Assembly, the Japanese proposal called for a group of experts to be set up under the secretary-general in order “to undertake technical studies regarding the strengthening and expansion of United Nations peace-keeping functions.”

The Japanese proposal received little positive response from the Western countries. If anything, their response was negative. Many objected to the idea of a group of individuals whose views might be given precedence over those of member nations. And though 44 countries eventually cosponsored the resolution, none of the leading Western nations joined this sponsorship. The resolution Japan was finally able to pass through the General Assembly emphasized “the imperative need to strengthen the role and effectiveness of the United Nations” but did not include the plan for a group of experts.6

The 1980s also saw a sudden growth in the contribution of Japanese personnel to the Secretariat. For many years the Japanese government had been actively recruiting and training people for U.N. service, but the number of Japanese in the United Nations had remained fairly constant until 1980, fluctuating between about 70 and 80 individuals. Between 1981 and 1982, however, 21 Japanese were added to the Secretariat’s staff, and over the next few years, additional appointments raised the total to 121 by 1985. Two assistant secretaries-general were even appointed in 1984.7

One of the main hurdles to expanded Japanese leadership within the U.N. is the acquisition of a permanent seat on the Security Council. Indeed, as Japan’s GNP has grown and its financial contributions to the U.N. have increased, Japan has shown a definite interest in becoming a permanent member of the Security Council. Japan is already one of the nations most frequently elected to one of the Council’s 10 nonpermanent seats, but with the exception of the United States, few nations have shown support for permanent Japanese representation on the Security Council. Given this fact, a permanent seat on the Security Council will continue to be a primary objective of Japan in the United Nations, even if that goal seems momentarily out of reach at this time.8

In the area of humanitarian assistance, Japan has frequently been found lacking. However, in 1984, after word had reached Japan of the terrible famine conditions that existed in many parts of Africa at that time, then-Foreign Minister Abe Shintarô, in an address to the 39th General Assembly, characterizing the situation in Africa as “an affront to peace,” urged that “the United Nations agencies be mobilized to draw up a unified plan of Africa making effective use of the total range of United Nations capabilities.” Furthermore, Minister Abe himself visited Zambia, Ethiopia, and Egypt in November of that year, pledging over $100 million in food aid for the famine-stricken African nations.

Meanwhile, the U.N. General Assembly debated the adoption of a declaration on Africa. Such an exercise had already begun in the 1984 summer session of the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), but negotiations had been deadlocked over questions involving debt burden and price stabilization of primary commodities. The council eventually turned to Japan to act as coordinator in this complicated undertaking. The Declaration on the Critical Economic Situation in Africa was subsequently adopted on December 3, 1984.

Japan’s role as coordinator was widely praised. Furthermore, Foreign Minister Abe’s proposal to mobilize U.N. capabilities also contributed to the organization of the United Nations task force for emergency assistance to Ethiopia and to Africa.9

Japanese leadership has also been notoriously absent in the area of human rights. Several reasons may account for this. First, Japan has ratified only seven of the 22 human-rights accords adopted by the U.N., up to 1992,10 and has thus been inhibited from taking active part in human-rights activities. Second, many Asian countries have had poor human-rights records, and Japan has not wished to place itself in a situation in which it would have to be critical of its neighbors. Third, human-rights issues have been highly politicized in the U.N., and Japan hasn’t considered it advantageous to expose itself to any “unnecessary position-taking.”11

More often than not, however, Japan has simply sought to avoid the question of human rights altogether. Tokyo takes the position that human rights are an internal, domestic matter and thus beyond the purview of the United Nations.12 In fact, Japan has even opposed the long-standing proposal for the creation of a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, citing as a reason the likelihood that such an office would be highly politicized and only add another layer of bureaucracy to the U.N. system.13

By and large, Japan has substituted financial leverage for political leadership in the United Nations. In the last decade Japan has shot up to become one of the top financial contributors to the U.N. In 1986, Japan’s mandatory assessment was raised to 10.84%, surpassing that of the former Soviet Union and ranking second only to the United States. Japan has also rapidly increased its voluntary contributions, reflecting its readiness to support various U.N. activities.14

Accordingly, Japan’s growing participation in the economic and social fields is best illustrated by its rising contributions to U.N. operational activities. Japan’s role in two agencies merits closer study. Japan became the second largest contributor to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1979 and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) in 1984.15 For some time Japan had regarded the UNDP as the central agency for technical assistance in the U.N. system, and had therein looked to play the much needed role of coordinator. From the seventh largest contributor in 1980, Japan has become the second largest with a share of 9.2% in 1985.16

However, as a large financial contributor to the U.N., Japan has found itself pushed to shoulder more and more of the burden during financial crises.17 One such crisis came in 1986–1987 when the United States was expected to withhold a large portion of its annual contribution due to Congressional action.18 Another financial crisis was the Persian Gulf War of 1991, in which Japan contributed some $10 billion in cash and in-kind support for the coalition effort against Iraq.19

Though the United Nations spends the largest portion of its budget on social and economic programs, its primary mission is the maintenance of international peace and security through the deterrence of military aggression. Indeed the “Japanese public idealistically expects the U.N. to guarantee world peace.”20

As mentioned earlier, Japan has even proposed a strengthening of U.N. peacekeeping functions. First, however, the extent to which Japan is prepared to take part in U.N. peacekeeping measures must be clarified.21

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution declares that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”22 This is clearly at odds with the very concept of U.N. peacekeeping operations, which at least entail the application of military power, if not the actual use of military force. The Constitution can, however, be interpreted not to prohibit the dispatch of troops where the purpose thereof is not the use of force. Thus, deployment for purposes such as peacekeeping could be seen as permissible under the Constitution.23

However, a large segment of the Japanese public is still “shocked by the thought of Japanese military personnel serving and perhaps even fighting halfway around the world.”24 In 1986, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs conducted a poll which asked the question: “Do you think Japan should cooperate with U.N. peacekeeping operations in addition to the present financial contribution?” The results were as follows: 41.0% of the respondents thought financial contribution would suffice, 23.6% said they would support the provision of men and equipment, 5.6% felt no need to cooperate, and the remaining 29.8% didn’t know.25 Seven years later, a similar poll conducted in early 1993, nearly two years after the Persian Gulf War, revealed that still only 23% of the Japanese people supported a military role for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF), Japan’s only form of armed services, even under the direction of the United Nations.26

Japan’s military policy, with regards to U.N. operations, was put to a dramatic test in 1990–1991. On August 2, 1990, in clear violation of international law and custom, an Iraqi army stormed into Kuwait, a tiny, oil-rich nation on the Persian Gulf. The United Nations immediately condemned Iraq’s actions, calling for the immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. On August 6, the Security Council imposed economic sanctions on both Iraq and Kuwait.27

Surprisingly, Japan actually beat the U.N. to the punch on the issue of sanctions. On August 5, Tokyo announced a ban on oil imports from Iraq and occupied Kuwait. Furthermore, investments and other similar financial dealings with the two nations were prohibited, and all economic cooperation with Iraq was suspended.28 Japan’s initiative ended here, however.

While Japan and the United Nations were imposing sanctions, the United States was taking decisive steps to assume the leadership of the U.N. effort against Iraq. Within days, the U.S. had assembled a multinational coalition force to be deployed in the Persian Gulf region to both contain further Iraqi aggression and enforce the U.N. resolutions. The stage was quickly being set for the military showdown which would come in the following year.

From the beginning, however, Japan’s policy regarding the military response to Iraq was to keep the SDF out of the conflict and to avoid any suggestion of military involvement. In fact, Tokyo’s initial support plan called for Japan to charter commercial planes and ships for transport, to send a team of medical personnel recruited from the private sector, and to provide only nonmilitary goods for the U.N. coalition. The reaction to this plan was largely negative. Many Japanese “sneered at a government that would not put its own military in the line of fire but was willing to dispatch private aircraft to a dangerous region.…” Neither could they understand the reasons for banning Japanese transporters from carrying military supplies and refusing to let SDF medical personnel provide their services should fighting break out.29 In the face of such criticism, the plan quickly fell apart.

In addition to this misguided effort, Japan also fell back on its traditional U.N. support policy, financial contribution. On August 29, Japan announced an assistance package which included $1 billion for the multinational forces.30 The results weren’t much better.

The $1-billion figure made little impression on the international community, and on September 14, Japan was forced to increase its contribution to $4 billion.31 Furthermore, many of the coalition nations, particularly the United States, wanted Japan to provide an actual physical presence in the Persian Gulf.

Japan was already feeling this pressure as early as August 29, when Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki suggested that a new law might be passed to “give Japan a means of participating in risky endeavors to resolve conflicts.” What finally emerged on August 16 was the U.N. Peace Cooperation Bill. It called for the creation of a “peace cooperation corps” which would be under the prime minister’s control and be staffed by civil servants and private citizens. (Various versions of the bill alternatively authorized the corps to draw upon elements of the SDF and prohibited it from doing so.) The corps was to be permitted to participate in only nonmilitary missions and was to be banned from employing the threat or use of force, but its members were to be permitted to carry small arms for self-defense.32

The Peace Cooperation Bill was controversial from the start. Though at first it enjoyed strong support in the Diet, that support quickly slipped away.33 On November 7, the bill was scrapped completely.34

In the end, Japan’s sole contribution to the U.N. operations was financial. On January 24, 1991, shortly after military operations had begun, Japan allocated $9 billion to the war effort. However, Tokyo attached the condition that this money could not be used for arms or ammunition. Japan also offered to dispatch SDF transport planes to the Persian Gulf for the airlifting of refugees.35 And by April 10, 1991, Japan had contributed over $10 billion.36 Japan’s final contribution to the gulf crisis was to send SDF minesweepers to the Persian Gulf at the end of April, a month after the war had ended.37

Even though Japan covered over a sixth of the war’s financial cost, the Persian Gulf crisis was something of a political debacle for Japan. In the aftermath of this, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party formed the Special Study Group on Japan’s Role in the International Community.38 Headed by Ozawa Ichirô, secretary-general of the LDP at that time, and popularly known as the Ozawa committee, the Special Study Group strongly recommended that Japan should permit SDF participation in U.N. military operations.39 Ozawa himself believed that SDF participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations was an important step in the process of Japan’s “international rehabilitation and acceptance as a credible international power.”40

In June 1992, the LDP pushed a new law, enabling the SDF to participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations, through the upper house of the Diet.41

SDF participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations constitutes a clear case of the deployment of Japanese troops overseas. Though this is theoretically allowable under the current interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, it far exceeds the geographical boundary of the deployment of Japanese ground forces previously observed (since the end of World War II).42 However, the conditions for SDF deployment under the U.N. Peacekeeping Operations Law are extremely strict; so strict that most locations will be precluded almost automatically.43

The sequence of events, described earlier, which led up to the adoption of the Peacekeeping Operations Law are a classic example of the “pressure-response” pattern seen so frequently in Japanese diplomacy. The decision to allow Japanese troops to participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations was not a “unilateral, spontaneous, unprompted gesture to the international community.…” External pressure shaped its content, and the Persian Gulf War dictated its timing. Pressure to take part in the Persian Gulf operation from the United States and the other coalition nations had set off the failed proposal for the Peace Cooperation Corps and ultimately culminated in the successful adoption of the Peacekeeping Operations Law.44 This is despite a statement by the Foreign Ministry that the “ ‘failure of Japan to come forward’ in the Gulf War was the genesis of the UN PKO [Peacekeeping Operations] Bill.” According to the Foreign Ministry, the U.N. Peacekeeping Operations initiative “has been a long-standing, age-old proposal, particularly on the part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It has been put forward on the table of national discussions since some 20 to 30 years ago.”45

Nonetheless, the U.N. Peacekeeping Operations Law is an important basis for Japan to continue assuming a larger political role in both the United Nations and the international community at large. Certainly its adoption was a political move. Japan’s behavior in the matter has been described as “situational accommodation,” that is, the “desire to assess correctly the trends of the times and make the desired adjustments in order to avoid international isolation and to facilitate international acceptance.…” By supporting the revived role of the United Nations as a world peacekeeping force, Japan “has successfully identified and tapped into world trends.” In the wake of the Cold War, an enhanced role for the U.N. is a distinctive feature of the “New World Order” as conceived by former President George Bush of the United States and other Western leaders. Thus it follows that Japan’s contribution to the building of this new world order should be in the arena of the U.N.46

The Peacekeeping Operations Law is also a marked departure from Japan’s near total reliance on financial power as its main instrument of international leverage and contribution.47 And in this sense, Japan is moving beyond the politics of the “trading state” and developing a more balanced and diversified approach to foreign policy.48

However, for Japan to continue broadening its role within the United Nations, it will have to further expand its commitment to U.N. peacekeeping functions. Japan has a unique opportunity to increase its influence within a United Nations that is at a critical juncture on the road to broadening the scope of its own powers. But both must be willing to act, and act decisively. Already, the U.N. Secretary-General has invited Japan to commit its support to the creation of a “rapid deployment force for peace-enforcement purposes”49—essentially a U.N. army. Japan’s political and military support would certainly increase the likelihood of success for such a venture.

For this to be achieved, however, a final determination will have to be made regarding Japan’s military status. Currently, the Japanese Constitution is in contradiction with the Charter of the United Nations. Article 9 of the Japan’s Constitution renounces “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” while Article 43 of the U.N. Charter requires that:

Clearly, the requirements of the Constitution conflict with Japan’s obligations as a member of the United Nations.

One solution which has been suggested for this problem is for Japan to draw a distinction between “collective defense,” which would remain unconstitutional, and “collective security,” which would not be restricted by the Constitution.51 This option has already been formally proposed in the draft report of the Ozawa committee, which states “that in situations where Japan’s SDF engage in U.N.-sponsored military action overseas based on Article 43 of the U.N. Charter, then such an operation should not be interpreted as a use of force banned under Article 9.” Ozawa himself has argued that Article 9 should not apply in the case of U.N. military operations.52

In the end, however, Japan’s Constitution may simply have to be revised, despite the “politically fraught process”53 this task would entail. Even former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro has come to this conclusion, citing Japan’s need to reconsider the scope of its self-defense prerogatives in a world that is rapidly “internationalizing” and where Japan’s security cannot be viewed separately from global developments. “Depending on the developments,” he wrote in 1990 in response to the Persian Gulf crisis, “it might even become necessary to revise the Constitution.”54

In its report, the Ozawa committee articulated a philosophy of “active pacifism,” acknowledging the fact that, in international relations, “the use military force is sometimes necessary to preserve peace.”55

Peaceful means alone will not always be sufficient for achieving the eternal human goal of “the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance.” In the course of the endeavor to preserve “an international peace based on justice and order,” there may be times when the international community must band together to fight tyranny.56

The Foreign Ministry made a similar statement in regard to the U.N. Peacekeeping Operations Bill: “We have learned that just being a peaceful nation is not much of a philosophy if it is not backed up by a willingness to take action in defense of freedom and peace.”57

It seems that Japan’s recent activism in the United Nations will likely continue, as argues Ogata Sadako, currently the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.58 She admits, however, that Japan’s policy in the U.N. is still a “series of balancing acts,” where by Japan tries reconcile the international goals of the U.N. with its own national interest.59 And though Japan’s economic strength has grown tremendously in the nearly 40 years since it joined the United Nations, Japan is still dependent “on international peace and good will for its security and prosperity.…”60

Owada Hisashi, administrative vice-minister for foreign affairs in 1992, has said, Japan “has no leadership experience in international politics.”61 Though Vice-Minister Owada’s statement is not entirely correct, as this paper has shown, it’s not too far from the truth. Japan has expanded its role in the U.N. to some extent, but it has yet to achieve the level of leadership expected of a world economic power of its stature. The current trend is encouraging, though. Japan has shown greater political initiative in the U.N. in recent years, has greatly increased its financial contributions to the U.N., and with the Peacekeeping Operations Law has begun the process of transition “from the status of a consumer to a supplier of international security.”62

1 Japanese Association of International Law, Study Group, Japan and the United Nations, National Studies on International Organization (New York: Manhattan Publishing Company, 1958), p. 226. 
2 Ogata Sadako, “Japan’s United Nations Policy in the 1980s,” Asian Survey 27 (September 1987), p. 961.
3 Ibid., pp. 970–971.
4 John M. Peek, “Japan, the United Nations, and Human Rights,” Asian Survey 32 (March 1992), p. 218.
5 Ogata, pp. 957–958.
6 Ibid., pp. 962–963.
7 Ibid., pp. 959.
8 Ibid., pp. 961–962.
9 Ibid., pp. 960–961.
10 Peek, p. 221, note.
11 Ogata, p. 968.
12 Peek, p. 217.
13 Ibid., p. 221.
14 Ogata, p. 959.
15 Ibid., note.
16 Ibid., p. 967.
17 Ibid., p. 959.
18 Ibid., p. 958.
19 U.S. General Accounting Office, Operations Desert Shield/Storm: Foreign Government and Individual Contributions to the Department of Defense (Washington, D.C.: GAO, 1992), p. 20.
20 Ogata, p. 963.
21 Ibid.
22 Constitution of Japan, Chap. II, Art. 9.
23 Aurelia George, “Japan’s Participation in U.N. Peacekeeping Operations: Radical Departure or Predictable Response?” Asian Survey 33 (June 1993), p. 562.
24 Nakanishi Terumasa, “The Gulf Crisis and Japan,” Japan Echo 17:4 (winter 1990), p. 7.
25 Interview survey conducted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 1986. Reprinted in Ogata, p. 964.
26 George, p. 573.
27 Kitaoka Shin’ichi, “Chronicling Japan’s Crisis Diplomacy,” Japan Echo 19:1 (spring 1992), p. 36.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid., pp. 37–38.
30 Ibid., p. 37.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid., p. 38.
33 Ibid., p. 39.
34 Nakanishi, p. 7, note.
35 Kitaoka, p. 40.
36 U.S. General Accounting Office, Operations Desert Shield/Storm, p. 20.
37 Kitaoka, p. 41.
38 George, p. 565.
39 Ibid., p. 571.
40 Ibid., p. 566.
41 Ibid., p. 560.
42 Ibid., p. 568.
43 Ibid., pp. 570–571.
44 Ibid., p. 563.
45 Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Foreign Ministry Special Briefing on Bill on Cooperation in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations” (Tokyo, June 1992), p. 3. Quoted in George, p. 563, note.
46 George, p. 567.
47 Ibid., p. 569.
48 Ibid., p. 570.
49 Ibid., p. 571.
50 Charter of the United Nations, Chap. VII, Art. 43, Sec. 1.
51 “Collective defense” refers to Japanese forces engaged in military activities on behalf of nations exercising their sovereign military rights, while “collective security” refers to the use of Japanese forces only in U.N. military operations. George, p. 571.
52 Ibid., p. 572, note.
53 Ibid., p. 574.
54 Nakasone Yasuhiro, “Reinterpreting the Constitution to Deal with Emergencies,” Japan Echo 17:4 (winter 1990), pp. 11–12.
55 George, p. 572.
56 Special Study Group on Japan’s Role in the International Community, LDP, “Japan’s Role in the International Community: Draft Report,” Japan Echo 19:2 (summer 1992), p. 54.
57 Quoted in George, p. 573.
58 Ogata, p. 968.
59 Ibid., p. 966.
60 Ibid., p. 972.
61 From a statement by Vice-Minister Owada Hisashi in Owada Hisashi and Kôsaka Masataka, “The Post-Cold-War Diplomatic Agenda,” Japan Echo 19:1 (spring 1992), p. 15.
62 George, p. 570.

Copyright © A.D. 1993, 2000 by M. D. Van Norman. All rights reserved.

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