Sunday, October 22, 2023

Japan Plays Catch-up

Japan: Caught Between Israel and Gaza

By Takuya Nishimura
, Former Editorial Writer for The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
You can find his blog, J Update here.
October 15, 2023. Special to Asia Policy Point

Japan proved itself a slow starter in the wake of the brutal military exchanges in the Middle East. During the first week, from Saturday October 7th, when militant group Hamas attacked Israel, to Friday 13th, Japan was hesitant to deliver a clear message to the world. Japanese leaders hope to raise Japan’s profile in international security issues.  Yet, because Japan is a pacifist nation, its opportunities to do so are limited. It is thus unlikely that Japan can play a large role in attaining peace in Middle East
The first comment of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was not through a press conference or a ministers’ meeting of the Cabinet, but through the social networking service, X (formerly Twitter). “Hamas and other Palestinian militants attacked Israel from Gaza yesterday. Japan strongly condemns the attacks which severely harmed innocent civilians. I express my condolences to the bereaved families and heartfelt sympathies to the injured,” Kishida posted on Sunday.
Kishida also deplored the kidnapping, demanded the release of the hostages, and urged all parties to exercise their utmost self-restraint in consideration with a number of victims in Gaza. Kishida first spoke to reporters on Friday the 13th. He said that the government would send aircraft to Djibouti to evacuate Japanese citizens in Gaza. 
The spokesman of Kishida Cabinet, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, repeated Japan’s stance in his daily press conferences. “We closely watch the situation there with serious concern. Attacks on the innocent ordinary people cannot be justified with any reason and we strongly condemn that,” Matsuno said on Monday.
It took six days for Matsuno to call the attack by Hamas terrorism. “After the attacks of Palestin armed power including Hamas against Israel, we recognize that a number of people were dead or injured. We firmly condemn the terrorist attacks this time,” Matsuno told on Thursday. His expression in Japanese, likely prepared by his chief foreign affairs aide, was too fuzzy to determine whether he condemned only Hamas or included the retaliatory attacks by Israel.
During her trip to visit four countries in Southeast Asia, Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa spoke by telephone with the Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan on Sunday and with the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates on Monday. “I conveyed that I am deeply saddened by the attacks by Hamas and other militants, which have claimed the lives of so many innocent civilians,” Kamikawa commented to the reporters in Vietnam on Tuesday. Kamikawa explained Japan’s view to her counterparts that Japan strongly condemns “such” attacks.
The leaders of five countries of G7, France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and United States, issued a joint statement on Monday that expressed their steadfast support of the State of Israel, and condemned Hamas and its acts of terrorism. Japan did not join the statement. “In the international society, the opinions have been delivered from various frameworks. The statement (of five leaders) was issued as one of those,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno said in his press conference on Tuesday.
It is hard for Japan, taking a neutral position on the issue, to side now with Israel on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. Japan has, for instance, taken the initiative on “Corridor for Peace and Prosperity” with Gaza, Israel, and Jordan, which promotes social and economic development in Jericho and Jordan Valley. Japan has contributed approximately $22 million in FY 2022 to the Gaza Strip for emergency and food aid through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). While former Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi announced in July that Japan would host a G7 foreign ministers meeting in Japan this November, it is unclear whether Japan can lead the discussion over the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Japan has maintained a friendly relationship with Israel. Kamikawa told Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen in a telephone call on Thursday that Japan would unequivocally condemn the recent terror attack by Hamas and that Israel had a right to defend itself and its people in accordance with international law.
Japan continues to favor the “two-state solution” to end conflicts in Israel and Gaza. However, Japan does not have a diplomatic channel with a non-state actor as Hamas. It will not be easy for Japan to mediate between the parties in the conflict.
The ambassadors of Israel and Palestine argued their respective cases on Friday, October 13 at press conferences at Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. Israeli Ambassador to Japan Gilad Cohen denounced the attack and the kidnappings by Hamas as crimes against humanity. He insisted that Israel would uproot and demilitarize Hamas in Gaza, declaring war against them.
To a question about Japan’s decision not to join the G5 statement on Israel, Cohen understood the pressures that Japan faces. “Of course, I would be more satisfied, if Japan would join the statement. But now there is a statement of Japan, which goes alone, with basic fundamental principles. We hope Japan to stand by us in the future,” Cohen said.
Ambassador Waleed Siam, the Permanent General Mission of Palestine held his press conference three hours later. “Japan has been a real good friend for the Palestinian people through the years. Actually, before Japan was accepted at United Nations as a member, Japan started helping UNRWA, which is for Palestinian refugees, since 1953 until today. I do believe Japan is neutral and can continue to play neutral role between the Palestinians and Israelis,” said Siam.
Siam also expressed his deep skepticism about Israeli aims. “Only thing to stabilize Palestine is to end Israel’s military occupation,” he said. Asked whether Japan is an ally of Israel, he said “Read the news, you can know who the allies are. You can hear the voices that calls for destruction of Gaza. Those are allies. Japan has not called for destruction of Gaza. Japan has always called for human rights, for international laws and for respecting United Nations resolutions.”
Both sides of the conflict want Japan to be their friend. To maintain a traditional relationship with each, Japan has to keep its position neutral. But it is difficult for Japan to exercise its leadership in the Western countries, which tend to favor the Israeli side. For Kishida who has been selling himself as a diplomatic leader, this year’s G7 chairmanship will be fraught.

G7 chair Japan opts not to sign statement by 5 leaders supporting Israel, Arab News, 10/10/21.   Japan and Canada abstain from joint statement in support of Israel after deadly attacks by Hamas from Gaza; Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno: Japan’s absence from the statement may be attributed to its desire to maintain flexibility in its approach.

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