- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

TOKYO — The Japanese government won’t send troops to help coalition forces in Iraq after all, but it will send 1,214 soccer balls.

In a ceremony last week, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Yukio Takeuchi accepted thousands of balls, spikes and uniforms donated from across Japan and undertook the task of shipping the equipment to Iraqi soccer authorities.

“It is important that the people of Iraq hold hope and can heighten their expectations for the future, and the donation from football fans all around Japan with their hearts provide a prop for them in this regard,” Mr. Takeuchi said at the ceremony.

The government originally had planned to send up to 1,200 members of Japan’s Self Defense Forces to help with noncombat tasks such as road building. But after a deadly attack on Italian forces in southern Iraq, the Japanese government decided to rescind its offer. The government said the attack shows that “circumstances” don’t permit such a dispatch.

The substitution of soccer balls for troops — one ball for one soldier — is symptomatic of the increasingly difficult situation of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Mr. Koizumi invested considerable political capital in actively supporting U.S. military policy after September 2001 but faces growing public opposition providing military assistance for the forces in Iraq.

A poll conducted last weekend by the Sankei Shimbun and Fuji News Network showed that 88 percent of Japanese oppose sending troops now. That number has risen steadily since the government enacted a law in July to allow the dispatch of troops. Support for Koizumi’s Cabinet was about 46 percent in the poll, down from 65 percent in late September polls.

“The alliance with Washington has been an asset for Koizumi,” says Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii. “But it may become a liability.”

In Madrid last month, Japan announced plans to contribute $5 billion, including loans, to meet reconstruction needs in Iraq — second only to the $87 billion contribution by the United States.

But even this leaves Japan open to the same international criticism it faced during the 1991 Gulf War for its mere “checkbook diplomacy.” There’s a history in Asia of “healing wounds” through sports.

The co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup soccer tournament by Japan and South Korea led to a warming of relations between the two countries that years of orthodox diplomatic initiatives failed to achieve.

The Korean peninsula was occupied by Japan for 40 years at the beginning of the 20th century, often brutally, and the Koreans banned the import of Japanese cultural products. After the success of the World Cup tournament, South Korea lifted prohibitions on such products as CDs and video-game software.

Three decades earlier, President Nixon allowed a touring Chinese pingpong team to play in the United States, leading within six months to the opening of U.S. diplomatic relations with Beijing.

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