As the first Gulf War raged in February 1991, Japanese army major Nozomu Yoshitomi was supposed to be playing war games with U.S. officers at a military facility in Tokyo. But the Americans appeared distracted, watching the conflict live on CNN. On another TV, local news showed Japanese troops sculpting ice figures at a snow festival.
“They asked how Japan could be a true U.S. ally if it hadn’t sent troops,” said Yoshitomi, recalling the shame he felt watching Japanese personnel build snowmen as U.S.-led coalition soldiers fought to evict the Iraqi army from the Kuwaiti desert.
Unable to send troops because of its war-renouncing constitution, Japan, which at the time bought 90% of its oil from the Middle East, instead contributed $13 billion to help fund the military operation.
For a generation of Japanese military planners and policymakers including Yoshitomi, who went on to advise the cabinet from 2005 to 2007 before retiring as a major general in April this year, that humiliation was a pivotal moment.
While many assume today’s more muscular security policy has been driven solely by conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, interviews with dozens of current and former Japanese military officers and government officials show it has much deeper roots, and is therefore likely to remain robust after he leaves office.
The 1991 experience firmed Japan’s resolve to move away from the state pacifism that had defined the country since its defeat in World War Two, the officials said.
“We learnt from the Gulf War that just sending money and not people would not earn us international respect,” said Tetsuya Nishimoto, then a senior Japanese Ground Self Defense Force general and now retired. Read More