Japan-Iraq Relations: The Perception Gap and Its Influence on Diplomatic Policies

By Sakai, Keiko | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Japan-Iraq Relations: The Perception Gap and Its Influence on Diplomatic Policies


Sakai, Keiko, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


JAPAN'S DIPLOMATIC POLICY TOWARD Iraq is only a dependent variable within its policy toward the Middle East region as a whole. Following the Second World War Japan has been largely influenced by its unique relationship with the United States. Many scholars have argued that "the Japanese-U.S. bilateral relationship was the most important external factor upon which all of Japan's foreign policies have been based," (1) while others go as far as to regard Japan as a client state of the United States, and to note that "Japan had to follow the United States' Middle East policy." (2)

During the decade starting in 1973, however, Japan began to pursue its own economic policy, keeping some distance from that of the United States. While the "majors" controlled the oil market, there was no contradiction between Japan's policy toward the United States and its energy policy but the 1973 oil crisis forced Japan to consider an independent energy policy. Japan's policy toward the oil-producing countries at that time was understood as a pro-Arab policy, aimed at securing an oil supply from the region. The Japanese approach to Iraq was an extension of this policy resulting in a honeymoon period for both nations.

It was on the basis of the experience of this period that Japan and Iraq established their first impressions of each other. The experience of this honeymoon period molded mutual understanding, and influenced the diplomatic policies of both states in the ensuing years. This remains so, despite the dramatic changes following the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and especially after the Gulf War of 1991. In this paper I would like to clarify the types of images that each state developed through its experiences during the decade of Japan's pro-Arab policy. Then I will briefly observe how the actual relationship between Japan and Iraq has changed from the 1970s until today, and try to elucidate why the relationship worsened after introduction of the Oil-for-Food Program.

GENERAL TRENDS OF JAPANESE POLICY TOWARD THE MIDDLE EAST

Prior to the Second World War Japanese contacts with the Middle East were limited; namely limited to minor transactions in textiles between Japan and Egypt, Iran and Iraq. (3) During the Second World War, the Japanese government attempted to mobilize Muslim forces -- mainly in China and Indonesia -- against the Allies, and prominent ultra-nationalist ideologues within Japan espoused sympathy with Muslims in the colonized Middle East. (4) There was also an attempt to buy oil from the Gulf as a way to break through the oil embargo imposed by the Allied forces on Japan. These efforts failed, however, and Japan lost all contact with the Middle East when the War ended.

In 1953, the government of Japan dispatched its first postwar economic delegation to the region. Visiting Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey the delegation called on Middle Eastern governments to abolish their discriminative economic policies established to thwart war-time Japan. In 1956, the Middle Eastern Room was established as a first subsection in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (hereafter, MOFA) to observe the situation in the Middle East region. Previously the Fifth Section of the Europe and American Division had followed political affairs in the Middle East, and the Sixth Section of the Economic Division the economic affairs there.

Some private companies attempted to secure oil supplies from the Middle East without going through the "majors", and the Japanese Tanker Nisshoumaru arrived at Abadan port to buy oil from Mosaddeq's Iran in 1953. In the late 1950s, the Arabian Oil Company successfully gained oil exploration rights in the Neutral Zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. These were exceptional cases, however, and other similar attempts were unsuccessful until the 1970s, as the Japanese oil industry had not been an essential industry until it proved indispensable to sustain the rapid Japanese economic growth in the 1960s.

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