Japan’s Iran

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The New York Sun

Junichiro Koizumi, Prime Minister of Japan, couldn’t have picked a better time to visit Israel than last week. He got a first-hand taste of his host’s hardship which may help the Japanese better deal with their own plight back home.

When Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received Mr. Koizumi in Jerusalem last Wednesday, aides interrupted every five minutes or so to keep Mr. Olmert posted on developments on fighting between the Israeli military and Hezbollah which had broken out that morning.

Mr. Koizumi, the first Japanese leader to visit the Jewish state in 11 years, initially proposed to cancel their luncheon meeting because of the crisis. However, Mr. Olmert insisted they go ahead so as not to give the impression that Hezbollah could so easily disrupt Israel.

“I felt fierce conflicts between people in the Middle East,” Mr. Koizumi told reporters at the end of his trip.

As Japan has enjoyed six decades of continuous peace and prosperity after World War II, Mr. Koizumi was understandably a bit timid amid a shooting war. He called on Mr. Olmert to show restraint and take sensible measures in its fighting against Hezbollah, stating that an eye-for-an-eye approach wouldn’t be good. Mr. Olmert responded “I listened to various hopes from Prime Minister Koizumi, but our stance is clear and that will involve pains.”

The visit to the Holocaust Museum, the Yad Vashem, might have helped Mr. Koizumi appreciate more of Israel’s need to fight for its existence. He said afterwards that “I understand the sadness of the bereaved families and I understand the Israeli people’s commitment for building their country and fulfilling a dream.”

Mr. Koizumi, who will be stepping down in September, and his successor can indeed learn valuable lessons from Israel in dealing with a looming threat from North Korea, which just fired off a round of missiles into the Sea of Japan. Like it or not, the Japanese are discovering that they share a number of similarities with the Israelis.

Israel is surrounded by nasty neighbors who would stop at nothing to try to wipe the Jewish state off the map. Iran, whose outspoken president has made its intentions clear, is speeding up its effort to build the bomb in defiance of the international community. North Korea is Japan’s Iran. So-called friends in the neighborhood are no comfort either. Egypt, the first Arab state to recognize Israel, proves to be not very helpful after all. Japan also found out that China and South Korea side more with North Korea. The United Nations also brings no good news. How many times has Israel found itself isolated in the world body that once equated Zionism with racism? The unsuccessful bid for a permanent seat at the Security Council last year must also have left Tokyo, the second largest financial contributor to the United Nations, with a sour taste in the mouth.

One fundamental lesson the Japanese must learn from the Israelis is that they’re not competing in a popularity contest. It’s fine if you can get others onboard, but don’t count on it. The state of Israel wouldn’t even exist today if the Israelis were deferential to their neighbors’ wishes or if they had listened to the international community’s advice. Only through die-hard determination and the courage to go it alone, if necessary, with some highly unpopular actions could Israel survive.

This reality should hit home with the Japanese in light of the reactions from China and South Korea after the latest round of North Korean missile test. Instead of criticizing the party which fired the missiles, the Chinese and the South Koreans were more interested in pointing their fingers at the Japanese. Seoul, for example, has said that the firing of Taepodong-2 constituted no crisis because “it was not aimed at any particular party” and “there is no reason to fuss over this from the break of dawn like Japan, but every reason to do the opposite.”

Since the missile launches, Japan has rattled the region by reviving a debate over whether it should develop the capability to make pre-emptive strikes and whether these would violate its post-World War II pacifist constitution. Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the most likely candidate to succeed Mr. Koizumi, said that one option allowable under the constitution would be to strike a foreign missile base when Japan is being attacked with missiles from that base. He added that an overseas first strike would fall within the legal parameters of self-defense “if there is no other way to prevent a missile attack on Japan.”

“This is like pouring oil on fire,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said. A South Korean presidential spokesman, Jung Tae-ho, accused Japan of using the missile firings as “a pretext for becoming a military power” which was “dangerous and reckless.” It exposed Japan’s tendency to invade other nations, Mr. Jung said.

In fact, Mr. Abe wasn’t talking about the kind of pre-emptive attack America has adopted. When Mr.Abe made the comment, he was thinking of a scenario in which several missiles had already been fired at Japan. But that has already proven to be too much for China and South Korea.

Mr. Koizumi’s administration last month introduced a bill in the parliament, the Diet, to upgrade the Defense Agency to fullfledged cabinet status. Mr. Abe also shares Mr. Koizumi’s desire of revising Article 9 of the constitution, which bars military force in settling international disputes and prohibits Japan from maintaining a military for the purpose of warfare. Now, it makes even more sense to push for such changes.

When Iraq was suspected to be developing nuclear weapons threatening Israel, Prime Minister Menachem Begin didn’t hesitate to order an attack against the plant near Baghdad in 1981. If the international community fails to stop Iran from acquiring the bomb, I’m sure Israel will consider taking on the mullah state on its own.

The question for Japan is: would it be ready psychologically and could it be ready militarily to hit Pyongyang if all efforts to stop Kim Jong-Il from firing a nuclear missile at Japan fail? I can only hope the answer is positive, especially when America’s hands are tied.

Mr. Liu, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and general manager of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, is a Washington-based columnist.

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