The deployment of the main contingent of Japanese Ground Self-Defence Forces
(GSDF) to Iraq this week marks a significant moment in the history of
post-war Japan. It is the first time since the end of World War II that
Japanese troops have been sent to an active combat area.
It is a decision that has divided the nation. Some see it as evidence that
Japan finally reaching maturity within the international community and
shedding the ghosts of the past, while others view the dispatch as a serious
breach of the Japanese pacifist constitution and therefore a direct assault
on the national identity.
Even as David Kay and Colin Powell appear to admit that the raison d’etre
for invading Iraq – to rid the world of an allegedly imminent threat from a
rogue state with WMD – may have been false, the desire of the US
administration to belatedly involve other nations and lend legitimacy to
their occupation continues unabated.
Japan represents a major player in this regard, more so because of it’s
unique constitutional constrains. If a resolutely pacifist nation like Japan
appears among ‘the willing’, it is easier for Washington to sell the
occupation of Iraq as part of a quest for peace or an act of humanitarianism
rather than the start of an occupation or the aftermath of a very one-sided
The pressure from Washington for Japan to join the ‘coalition of the willing
’ has been enormous and sustained.
During Operation Desert Storm, similar pressure was applied to the Japanese
military to come out of its shell and get involved. Never remotely willing
to do so, even under extreme coercion from the US, Japan pledged money
rather than men and was met with an overwhelmingly cynical response from the
This time, as part of a unilateral campaign that lacks UN approval, a
campaign that is regarded by many as dangerous American neo-imperialism, it
is perhaps surprising that Japan has decided to become involved.
The decision to send around 600 ground troops has been intensely debated for
months, and required new, customised legislation, the carefully named “Iraq
Humanitarian Assistance Bill” to pass the Diet, which it did in July last
In moving towards the decision to send troops, every conceivable aspect of
their deployment has been scrutinised and reported for the benefit of an
increasingly vocal opposition and a very nervous electorate.
While Japanese politicians and military planners have taken great pains to
define their role as ‘non combat’, the reality on the ground in Iraq has
proven that ‘the insurgents’ and suicide bombers have little regard for
Coalition timetables and terminology. Iraq by any other name remains a
war-zone. A uniform, any uniform, is a target.
Since deciding to deploy, the aim has been to send troops to a region of
Iraq that least resembles a war zone. The question for Japan has become,
“How do you participate in a war zone without killing or being killed?” No
easy question to answer.
From the earliest stages of planning, the southern areas of Iraq were the
first choice for the Japanese contingent, far away from the unstable north.
When Italians and others started being killed in the south, even this
appeared too dangerous, and the momentum to send troops slowed a little.
However, after much deliberation, Samawah was chosen as the location of the
Japanese deployment. It is about as safe a bet as you can make in Iraq.
The only way to avoid the politically disastrous outcome of Japanese
casualties is to attempt to control the variables around them, minimise risk
and ensure that only a fraction of that which could go wrong actually does.
As a small contributor of men but a large financial player (Japan has
contributed more than US $5 billion to Iraqi reconstruction at the time of
writing) Japan has bought the luxury of having a large say in how her troops
will be involved.
First into Iraq was the advance team, sent in to make sure Samawah is ‘safe
enough’. Then the second team to meet and greet the local powerbrokers, to
ensure that the troops are well received and that cultural misunderstandings
don’t lead to resentment and ultimately violence. Then the air force and the
navy. And finally, the ground troops themselves.
It must be the most reluctant, furtive deployment of troops in history,
which makes you wonder why they are doing it.
Like the rest of the world,
and no longer just Democrats, cynics and the ‘alternative’ media, many are
assuming there will be some form of ‘payment’ down the line, a particularly
plausible theory when one considers Japan’s trade links to the US, its
chronic lack of energy resources and often stated desire for greater access
Domestically, the dispatch of troops is a big political gamble for the
Koizumi administration and the LDP coalition generally. The big advantage
that Koizumi has right now is that most useful of political commodities:
During the general election campaign last year, Koizumi was careful to
discreetly drop involvement in Iraq into a larger basket of campaign
He attached involvement in Iraq to economic reform and burgeoning
recovery, clipped a little darkness onto a growing ray of light. Now that
the election is won, his fallback position is to claim a mandate from the
people, which is very difficult to argue against.
On the other hand, almost every Japanese person I have spoken to personally
has been firmly against the deployment.
Polls show that the level of disapproval hovers somewhere between 60 and 70
percent. These levels are analogous with other countries that have already
sent troops to Iraq but there remains a crucial difference – none of those
countries have a constitution that renounces involvement in war. It is this
fact that seems to stick in the throats of most people. Their pacifist
constitution is both atonement for a bloody past and a defining national
characteristic to many Japanese.
In the face of a potential breach of Article 9 (the ‘pacifist clause’ of the
constitution), troop deployment as an act of humanitarianism is by far the
easiest pill for the Japanese public to swallow. Although the public here
seem to intuitively realise that this decision represents a potentially
dangerous new trajectory for Japanese foreign policy, they appear to be
willing to begrudgingly accept it if it is presented as a form of altruism.
Thus, terminology has defined the paradigm in this debate, and become the
core of the issue. A new lexicon has been invoked. Terms such as ‘rear-area’
, ‘non-combat’, ‘logistical support’ and ‘humanitarian aid’ have been
introduced to push the hard fact that Japanese troops are being sent to a
war-zone into shadow and out of focus. It has been a delicately worded hard
sell but one that was never going to be allowed to fail, as promises made
must be kept, and there are important gains to be made in the long term.
One positive to emerge from this decision is a stronger protest movement,
the likes of which is rarely seen in Japan. Last Sunday, an anti-war rally
in Tokyo attracted 6000 people, a small number by some standards but an
impressive showing here, where public mobilisation against authority and
government is extremely rare.
Smaller protests have also occurred at the
ports and military bases from where the actual planes and ships have
Language and shades of meaning will most likely be the core of the debate as
long as the deployment continues and there are no casualties. What
constitutes combative action? The ASDF cannot transport weapons or munitions
but what about armed troops? It will be these details that will obsess the
media, military planners and politicians in coming months.
Already, Defence Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba has stated that, “Terrorist
attacks… cannot be called acts of war,” a perspective that protects Article
9, but would seem to contradict the ‘logic’ of the overall US led campaign.
Again, it is all a matter of degrees and interpretation.
At any rate, the debate will change dramatically should Japanese soldiers be
killed in Iraq, regardless of whether they were fighting in a war or just
helping people at the time.