Soft Power and Hard Realities: Japan's Engagement in the Middle East

PDF downlaodMelisa Mendoza Vasquez*

POMEAS OP-ED, 27 February 2015

The cautious engagement of Japan in the Middle East received a hostile 'welcome' by the Islamic State. The hostage crises broke out just a few days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the region. The failure to handle the crisis showed the limitations of Japan's soft-power to have a say on the ground.

Abe's Japan has decided to turn on the volume of its foreign policy, which has been on the mute for a long time. The Prime Minister has vowed to "make Japan a country that once again shines on the world's center stage".1 Therefore, Abe has made significant readjustments not only to Japan's foreign policy approach but also to its national security understanding. For him, these two would go hand-in-hand and complement each other, as Japan pursues a proactive foreign policy in which the Middle East is within the top agenda.

As part of its new foreign policy and security approach, Japan established its National Security Council on December 4, 2013. The Council was found to build a strong and frequent coordination between thirteen ministries aiming to formulate a collective state approach to security issues and a long-term national security strategy. The establishment of such an institution was rational at a time when Japan expanded the capacity and role of its self-defense forces, increased its military investment, and emphasized security greatly. Through these adjustments Japan could both protect itself back home against any possible hostile attempts and at the same time promote Japan as a strong partner in security.

The Prime Minister surely has many reasons and motivations, both regional and international, for pushing Japan into such a direction. China, as a rising power in the Asian-Pacific region, for instance, stands as a crucial factor for Japanese activism. Japan is alarmed by the increasing influence of China both in the immediate region and overseas.2 A future rivalry between Japan and China on the Middle Eastern energy resources could also be a source of tension due to the increasing energy consumption of both. Moreover, Japan wants to increase its cooperation with Australia, India and USA for a more firm stance in the region. These "quadrilateral ties" between the four major powers add to the desire to seek an active foreign policy.3 On the other hand, Japan is in search for new suppliers for its energy demand. For that, it seeks to improve its relations with Russia.4

While all these factors, among others, do matter significantly, the Middle East is the most outstanding one to motivate Abe to diverge from the stagnant foreign policy. Even though Japan is not as visible as other international actors, it is one of the main stake-holders in the stability of the region. This is mainly because of Japan's dependence on the region's energy sources as it imports at least 80 per cent of its oil and about 30 per cent of its natural gas from the Middle East countries.5 This makes Japan both vulnerable to the developments taking place in the region and also underlines the need for the country to "make a greater commitment"6 to guard its interests and energy security.

Traditionally Japan has wielded soft-power in its engagement in the Middle East. It has introduced itself as the country which promotes "peace and prosperity". Committed to its "pacifist Constitution", it has avoided taking part in direct military actions except for sending troops to peace keeping operations. It has provided substantial amounts of humanitarian aid packages to the conflict cases including Syrian refugees who flee from the civil war.7 It has established strong multilateral relations with European Union and United Nations and good bilateral relations with rival countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine. It has promoted Japanese investment and business interests in Gulf countries, being involved in cultural exchange and technical assistance relationships.8

Japan has also been involved in the fight against terrorism by announcing to give 200 million dollars of humanitarian aid to the allies against the Islamic State. Although a considerable amount of money was pledged, Japan's contribution to the battle against terrorism was limited. The constraints posed by its Constitution left no room for maneuver to Japan to act further. Nevertheless, even this limited and cautious support of Japan backfired when IS requested exactly the same amount of money for the two Japanese hostages. The amount of 200 million dollars which was a tool in the hands of Japan to be somewhat involved in the region passed onto the hands of terror and was used against the country.

The failure to handle the hostage crisis showed the limitations of Japan's soft-power to have a say in the ground at issue. Inadequacy to act overseas caused intense debates about whether Japan should enhance its involvement in the region or remain cautious and unattached. While one group supports to take more responsibility for combating terrorism, another fears that further involvement would only cause more harm. The Prime Minister Abe strongly rejects giving in to terrorism. He has made his stance clear in his statement about the killings of IS. "I will never forgive these terrorists" he said and stated his utmost support to increase the amount of humanitarian aid against terrorism and facilitate the use of self-defense forces.

In fact, Japan was already within a period of loosening the constraints before active involvement. It seems that this unfortunate event caused by IS will have a role in speeding up the debates and promoting such reforms. There is no doubt that Abe's new active foreign policy approach, with its increasing security capability and military investment is positively correlated with the harsh realities of the Middle East. However, effective engagement in the region is not an easy task. It requires Japan not to abandon its traditional soft-power tools, but be able to use them simultaneously with the new foreign policy tools which prioritize security and active involvement.

Japan still has a long way to go to be an influential actor in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the critical role the region plays in Japan's national and international interests forces the country to follow an assertive foreign policy. The Middle East, which currently most of the international attention has focused on, is increasingly going to be at the heart of Abe's foreign policy as well.


1."New Year's Reflection by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe," January 1, 2015, accessed February 20, 2015,
2.Ken Sato, "Japan's Role in the International Community," Asia-Pacific Review 17, No.1 (2010).
3.Clint Richards, "Japan's Road Warrior Diplomacy," The Diplomat, September 25, 2014, accessed February 21, 2015,
4.Shinichi Kitaoka, "The Abe Administration: Beyond 100 Days," Asia-Pacific Review 20, No.1 (2013):8.
5.Nobumasa Akiyama, "Japan's Middle East Policy after the Geneva Interim Agreement with Iran," The Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies, March 20, 2014, accessed February 22, 2015,
7.Teruaki Moriyama, "How Can we Stop the Suppression in Syria?," The Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies, June 19, 2012, accessed February 20, 2015,
8.Daniel Wagner, "Japan's Influence in the Middle East," The Huffington Post,October 25, 2013, accessed February 20, 2015,

*POMEAS Research Assistant