Given the recent stories about Japan’s turn to nationalism, it is sometimes easy to forget how much Japan is influenced by pacifist sentiments. Indeed, even nationalists such as Abe Shinzo have found it necessary to dress up their policies in the language of pacifism. Thus, it is not surprising that Japan’s first National Security Strategy talks of a more “proactive contribution to peace.”

Quite often in Japan’s diplomacy and public discourse we see a fusion of contradictory impulses: the impulse to be more active regionally, the impulse to push for more “normal” roles for its military, and its impulse to find peaceful and non-threatening ways to contribute. Indeed, given its colonial history in Asia, even when Japan reaches for expanded influence and prestige, it must do so in ways that are sensitive to the perspective of its neighbors. Activities focused around disasters serve as the perfect vehicle for Japanese diplomatic activism. The Asia region is one especially prone to disasters, and as a country besieged by disasters, it can claim special expertise. In addition, because disasters have mostly victims and no assailants, they are historically neutral sites where Japan’s role as a colonial victimizer can be overlooked.

Japan’s disaster diplomacy has evolved over time and has included a wide range of activities that include contributions to national disaster response through its dispatch of rescue and medical teams, its use of Official Development Assistance to diffuse technologies for disaster risk reduction, and its efforts to create international standards for disaster risk reduction through international forums. Over time, Japan’s dispatch of disaster relief teams has grown from the dispatch of purely civilian teams (comprising medical specialist, search and rescue teams, and other experts) to the deployment of the Japan Self Defence Force (JSDF). Japan has also become active in the pioneering of norms and best practices by hosting several major conferences that would kick start the UN Disaster Risk Reduction Project. In a sense, these practices have grown in stride with other UN-based initiatives such as Japan’s pursuit of human security and its activism in UN peacekeeping operations.

Japan’s first experiences in disaster relief were the dispatch of medical teams to Thailand to assist with Cambodian refugees in 1979. Fourteen teams and 407 volunteers participated in this early effort. By 1982, the system for recruiting and sending professionals into the field had become more organized under the guidance of MOFA. In 1987, the Disaster Relief Law (JDR Law) was enacted to give these teams enhanced legal standing and to systematize their use. According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 1987 and March 2012, 121 teams were dispatched to forty countries around the world.

Military participation in disaster relief has also become conspicuous. In 1992, the Japanese Diet revised the JDR Law to allow the JSDF to be used in disaster relief activities. The motivation for revising this relationship had partly to do with the Gulf War “shock” where Japan was not recognized by Kuwait for its contribution to the Gulf War despite its hefty financial contribution. This incident led to charges both within Japan and from abroad of ‘chequebook diplomacy’. Japan’s response to the dramatic events of the December 26, 2004 tsunami would be, in retrospect, a turning point. The dispatch of almost 1,000 military personnel to the area was a significant step for Japan, and a step, more importantly, that met with little resistance from those countries that had suffered under Japanese colonialism. Since this dispatch, Japan has been actively responding to disasters throughout the world. The JSDF was a crucial player in the 2010 response to the earthquake in Haiti; and again, the JSDF was active in the response to the 2011 earthquake in New Zealand, as well as in the response to the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines.

In addition to its dispatch of relief teams and military assets, and in line with its multilateral UN-based diplomacy, Japan contributes significantly to its disaster diplomacy agenda through its Official Development Assistance. ODA has been used to fund technical cooperation, such as hosting trainees and the use of grant and loan aid to improve disaster resilience in recipient countries. For example, Japan’s ODA programming includes disaster prevention education, evacuation drills, early warning systems, and hazard mapping techniques. Another crucial aspect of Japan’s disaster diplomacy has been its support of the diffusion of norms and best practices through international forums. Japan hosted the first World Conference on Disasters in Yokohama in 1994, the second Conference on Disaster Reduction in Hyogo in 2005, and the World Ministerial Conference on Disaster Reduction in Tohoku in 2012.

Japan’s policy has evolved in part as a reaction to external criticism during the 1990s, in part to expand its military operational competency and cultivate influence in the region, and partially as a way of seeking honor and prestige in the international system. As a peaceful form of international and regional contribution that stresses Japan’s unique understanding of disasters, disaster diplomacy highlights Japan’s capabilities and compassion without alarming its neighbors. As Japan faces the challenges of the 21st century—one where it will need a more robust security establishment, a diplomatic tone that puts its neighbors at ease, and activities that bring honor to its people—Japan will continue to filter these impulses through activities like disaster diplomacy.

Yoshiko Yamada is a graduate of Florida International University with a PhD in International Relations. She is an expert in Japanese Foreign Policy, International Law, and Feminist International Relations Theory. She has presented her research at numerous professional conferences. Daniel Clausen is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations. His research has been published in The Diplomat, Asian Politics and Policy, Culture and Conflict Review, and the Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, among other publications.

This article was adapted from a longer essay that will be published later this year by Ashgate entitled “Risk State: Japan’s Foreign Policy in Age of Uncertainty”.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Sara Keller, Public Domain.

Daniel Clausen
Daniel Clausen is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations and an instructor at Nagasaki International University. His research has been published in Asian Politics and Policy and Culture and Conflict Review, among other publications.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.