A leaked report to a Japanese newspaper recently indicated Tokyo had complied with US pressure to have the Air Self-Defence Force deliver supplies and support to all 24 main airports across Iraq, up from the 13 facilities that it presently services.

The increased presence in Basra, Baghdad, Balad, Mosul and Taril will go into effect before Japan's Ground Self-Defence Forces withdraw from the southern city of Samawah, where they have been involved in reconstruction efforts.

Japan hopes its increased commitment to Iraq will reverse the trend of withdrawal among other allies, and secure US backing in its campaign for a permanent seat on the Security Council.

A key part of that initiative, however, had to be cancelled last week when Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, suffered a massive stroke.

Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's prime minister, had been scheduled to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in a trip described by Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe as an effort to further the Middle East peace process.

"Peace in the Middle East and Japan are not unrelated and I will think about what Japan can do and I will listen to what they are thinking," Koizumi said, although he played down suggestions he would include a visit to Iraq as part of the itinerary.

Koizumi would have been the first Japanese leader to visit the Middle East in a decade.

Japanese catalyst

Koizumi had planned to chair a three-way summit with Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

Assisting the US in Iraq could
help Japan get the seat it wants

There is hope in Tokyo that the summit might yet go ahead, once the situation in the region has stabilised, perhaps with Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli prime minister.

But that does not mean Tokyo's bid for the Security Council has been put on hold.

Professor Kaneko Kumao, of the Strategic Peace and International Affairs Research Institute at Tokai University, said: “This is a very political and economic decision.

"Japan is reducing its interest in Africa because it needs Middle East oil, but also because US President George Bush is very committed to the ongoing war in Iraq.

"Koizumi wants to continue Japan's cooperation in that region and this is a good gesture," he said. 

Dangerous developments
 
There are others, however, who are voicing concern about where and when Japan's commitment to the region might end.
 
Noriko Hama, a professor at Kyoto's Doshisha University, said: "Involvement in the Middle East is just the kind of thing that would draw attention to Japan and let it be seen to be doing something that contributes to world peace and the Middle East situation, but there is apprehension at home as to where it might all end.
 
"There is serious concern among the thinking classes, particularly as the issue seems to have gone relatively quiet in recent days due to news events at home, but while people's attention is elsewhere, it's as if the government is proceeding with stealth in the Middle East," she said.
 
"The real concern is that the commitment could go on indefinitely because it is less conspicuous and people are not thinking about it but take it for granted," she added. "That would be a really worrying development.
 
And with Japanese politics becoming more pro-Washington and right wing, she suggested, there is little resistance at home to what is rapidly becoming the status quo of Japanese troops in Iraq.

Chinese opposition

Tokyo's biggest international opponent in its UN campaign is Beijing, which believes Imperial Japan's occupation of China makes it ineligible for a permanent seat.

China has vowed to block Japan's
bid for a permanent seat

Along with the other four permanent powers on the Security Council, Beijing holds a veto and has made it clear it will do everything in its power to frustrate Japan's ambitions.

Tension between the two Asian neighbours have also been strained over insistence by Koizumi and leading members of his cabinet to visit Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, the last resting place of more than 2 million Japanese who have fallen in battle, as well as a dozen Class-A war criminals.

Professor Kumao said: "The Middle East trip was part of a very clear policy to win a UN seat, which China is determined to prevent, and it is these clear policies on both sides that will bring them back into conflict, I fear.

"Japan cannot accept defeat on this point," he added. "And I don't think China will either, so the outcome will have to be some sort of compromise that lets both countries survive without each country losing too much face."

Iraq effort

The Japanese government has already started conducting research to ensure maximum safety and security on the new routes that its transportation aircraft will fly in Iraq.

There is apparently concern in some areas that Japanese troops may be injured or even killed - something they have so far managed to avoid in two years of being deployed in southern Iraq.

A transport aircraft was shot down by fighters close to Baghdad's airport and that is a scenario that Tokyo desperately wants to avoid.

Public opinion, which has been muted since Japanese troops were first sent to the region, would turn overnight against the government and there would be extremely heavy pressure to pull Japan's forces out.

Having another ally withdraw would damage Washington's standing while simultaneously denting Tokyo's bid for the Security Council.