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Japan in Recent Years, International Affairs

Japanese prime ministers, Kuril Islands, joint declaration, growing trade, Persian Gulf War

The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s brought new uncertainties in Japan’s relations with the outside world. Although the mutual security treaty remained in force, the United States pressured Japan to assume responsibility in international politics commensurate with its economic power. A country with a large stake in international stability, the Americans argued, should take some responsibility for maintaining it.

Japanese political leaders, aware that public sentiment strongly supported the peace constitution, remained reluctant to take a more active role in international military efforts. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the Japanese government provided $13 billion to help reimburse the expenses of the anti-Iraq coalition, but sent no troops. In 1992 the Diet passed a law allowing noncombatant SDF personnel to take part in UN peacekeeping operations, but the law required Diet approval in every case. And the Japanese public expressed concern in 1997 when a new U.S.-Japanese security plan committed Japan to cooperate with U.S. forces in conflicts occurring in areas around Japan.

In the 1990s the Japanese confronted hostility among their Asian neighbors despite growing trade, investment, and other economic ties. Memories of Japan’s wartime activities remained alive in North and South Korea and China. In the early 1990s, for example, South Koreans and other Asians demanded that Japan admit responsibility for forcefully recruiting women to serve as “comfort women,” or prostitutes, for Japanese soldiers during the war. On August 15, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Prime Minister Murayama expressed “deep remorse” for war victims, particularly in Asia. But leading LDP politicians continued to make statements that appeared to defend or justify Japan’s actions as an imperialist and military power. The issue resurfaced in 2001 when a new history textbook appeared to gloss over Japan’s past military aggressions in China and Korea.

In September 2002 Prime Minister Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il signed a joint declaration to begin normalizing relations between their two countries. The summit meeting, held in North Korea, marked the first diplomatic relations between the two countries since 1948. Prior to the meeting, North Korean officials admitted that North Korean agents had abducted a number of Japanese citizens since the 1970s in order to conduct spying operations under stolen identities. In the joint declaration, Japan in turn formally apologized for Korean suffering under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.

In the 1990s and early 2000s Japan and Russia took steps toward resolving their long-standing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. The dispute had prevented Japan and the Soviet Union from signing a peace treaty after World War II, leaving them technically in a state of war. The lingering dispute also posed a significant obstacle to diplomatic and economic relations between Japan and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Meetings between Russian president Boris Yeltsin and Japanese prime ministers in the late 1990s produced statements of commitment to resolving the dispute. In 2003 Prime Minister Koizumi and Russian president Vladimir Putin signed an agreement calling for an accelerated effort to resolve the dispute and produce a peace treaty. In general terms, the agreement also indicated that the two countries would cooperate in exploiting Russia’s vast energy resources.

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