Bye War, Hello Kitty

Thursday 3 April 2003, by Nadine PEDERSON

PHOTO: Nadine Pedersen

TOKYO - Opinion polls indicate that the vast majority of Japanese citizens are against a war on Iraq. Despite this, the Japanese government has been giving the United States its steadfast support for the war, first in the UN and now as one of 35 countries in the "coalition of the willing."

"I understand the start of the use of force by America and support it," said Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in a televised address. "If a dangerous dictator possesses dangerous weapons of mass destruction, we will face a big danger. How to get rid of this threat concerns people around the world."

Although Japanese often avoid stating their political opinions outright, the government’s position on Iraq has met with widespread, and growing, indignation. While many Japanese say they believe their country has no choice but to support an ally that has a network of bases and thousands of troops arrayed to protect it - especially when North Korea lobs the odd missile into the Sea of Japan - many feel that their government has been overly supportive of the pro-war camp in the UN. Just a few weeks ago Japan’s foreign minister indicated that Japan was pressuring the undecided members of the Security Council to vote in favour of military action against Iraq.

"Many people in Japan think it is a good thing to be apolitical," said Ayako Aihara, a student. "But I think being apolitical right now is political." It seems other Japanese also feel this way. On February 15, when millions of people in 600 cities around the world demonstrated against a war on Iraq, only 7 000 people took to the streets in Tokyo. But as war became imminent, more and more people began picking up placards - many of them for the first time.

On March 8, more than 30 000 people marched through Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district chanting slogans like "senso hantai" (we are opposed to war), "Don’t Attack Iraq," and even "Bye War, Hello Kitty." On March 15, a similar number marched in cities across Japan and more demonstrations are expected now that the war has begun.
The Japanese cite concern about the economy, rising gas prices, restricted travel opportunities due to possible terrorist attacks, and escalating tension with North Korea as reasons for their opposition to a war against Iraq. But their attitude is also linked to their own experience at the end of the Second World War.

Many demonstrators carry placards showing Japanese photojournalist Takashi Morizumi’s photographs of Iraqi children suffering from cancer and physical deformities, believed to be the effects of depleted uranium munitions used by coalition forces during the Gulf War. Although 58 years have passed since atom bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, their devastating effects have not been forgotten. Many Japanese say the use of depleted uranium in 1991 constituted a "different nuclear war"- one they don’t want to see repeated.
While taking to the streets is one method of protest that concerned Japanese have engaged in recently, some have used innovative methods to try and stop the current war in the Persian Gulf.

About three weeks ago, long-time peace activist Akira Kawasaki, together with people he met outside the U.S. embassy and on the Internet, formed the "Citizens’ Mission to Peace-Loving Embasssies." This group of Japanese citizens began by visiting the embassies of France, Germany, Russia, South Africa, and Malaysia to "oen " (support and encourage) these countries for taking a stance against war at the UN.

Pleased by these initial efforts, the Citizens’ Mission decided to go a step further and meet with the ambassadors of the "Middle Six" countries to ask them to tell their governments that although the Japanese government supports the U.S., Japanese citizens do not.
Members of the Citizens’ Mission drafted a letter to the various ambassadors congratulating them for their "government’s continuous diplomatic efforts on the current Iraqi crisis" and asking them to continue to do so. On a personal note, they wrote: "We feel terribly shamed that our government has been pressing your government and other Security Council colleagues to support the U.S. draft resolution, that is forcing you to explicitly say ’Yes’ to a war. Such a position of the Japanese government does not reflect the Japanese citizens’ will at all." Other Japanese have been involved in fax and internet campaigns. Many citizens also visited Baghdad in recent weeks to report on the situation there.

Now that bombs have begun to fall on Iraq, Japanese peace activists will face more challenges as they continues to mobilize - not only against the war in the Middle East, but against the government that supports it.

Nadine Pedersen, Alternatives Newspaper

The author is now in Tokyo working for Alternatives.

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