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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (January 20, 2004)

Japan's Military Head for Historic Iraq Mission

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

On January 16, a snow-swept airport on Japan's rugged northern island of Hokkaido became the starting point for an historic journey. The dispatch of Japanese troops to Iraq will lead to Japan's military re-emergence on the world stage after almost six decades of exile. However, the country is deeply divided over sending its men into a war zone and the issue has become one of the most politically divisive of recent years.

If history was fussy about its venues, the remote city of Asahikawa would still be a largely anonymous place. However, this far-flung outpost is currently at the heart of the Iraq dispatch debate. The relatively small city is the second largest on the vast island territory of Hokkaido. Asahikawa serves as the base and headquarters for the 2nd Division of Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF).

About 150 of Asahikawa's military personnel are destined to become some of the first Japanese soldiers to be sent into an active combat zone since the country's defeat in the Second World War. A ten-man advance party set off from Asahikawa on Wednesday (January 16) for war-torn Iraq via stopovers in Tokyo and Kuwait, before driving overland to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah. The advance party will prepare the way for deployment of the main force.

Harsh winds cut into the onlookers who came to watch the advance team's departure from snow-battered Asahikawa Airport. A father of one of the troops, who declined to be named, summed up his feelings, "I hope they will be safe, we are thinking of them." Despite his show of support for the troops, the man seemed uncertain about the wisdom of sending them.

Kunio Sasaki, a local politician for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), explained the mood in the city, "In Asahikawa a lot of people have confused feelings about the dispatch. While many people are against the deployment, they are for the troops. They are very worried about the safety of the men once they get to Iraq."

Ryoji Yamauchi, president of Asahikawa University, observed, "Asahikawa, and Japan as a whole, is divided on the issue. It is rather like the situation in England. The majority of British people were against the war, but worried about the safety of their troops on the battlefield. In Asahikawa, people don't want our men to go to Iraq, but if they do go, they will support them. They think to do otherwise would be unpatriotic."

Both men's assessments match national opinion surveys which indicate that Japan is deeply divided over the issue. The latest NHK survey shows that 51% of people are against the troop dispatch, while 42% support it. Most of those who oppose the move do so because they think that Iraq is too dangerous a place to send the GSDF, whose actions are restricted by Japan's war-renouncing constitution.

Analyzing the troop deployment from a different perspective, professor Yamauchi comments, "You have to understand the GSDF dispatch in the context of Japanese nationalism. The ultra-right is growing in strength and sending the troops is very much in tune with their neo-nationalist vision of Japan. They are using this issue and the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea as a justification for creating a more militaristic Japan and abolishing Japan's war-renouncing constitution. [US President George W.] Bush and [British Prime Minister] Blair just have no understanding of the Japanese neo-nationalists' agenda."

Izumi Karasawa, a local resident who lives near the GSDF base, expresses the feelings of many ordinary residents, "Why are we sending troops to Iraq? Under the constitution, dispatching Japanese troops to a war zone is illegal. I feel really angry about [Prime Minister] Koizumi violating the constitution."

The NHK poll for January showed that 82% of people do not believe that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has given a sufficient explanation as to why the troops are being sent. Junichi Fujiwara, a professor at a women's college in Asahikawa, is in no doubt why Koizumi is dispatching the military. "The only reason Japan is sending troops is because President Bush has told Koizumi to do it." Professor Fujiwara adds, "I think most people are against the troop dispatch because Iraq is just too dangerous at the moment."

David Long, a longtime foreign resident of Asahikawa, who lives near the GSDF base, expresses the mixed view held by many Japanese who support the dispatch. "The troops should go as they are soldiers and it is their duty to obey orders. Having said that I do not actually think the order to send them should have been given in the first place. Japan has already pledged vast sums of money towards Iraqi reconstruction. I do not see why we have to spend even more taxpayers' money on sending troops."

Keiko Yamauchi, a former Social Democratic Party lawmaker for Hokkaido and Asahikawa resident, says, "As a lawmaker, I have been to Iraq twice. I can tell you from my own experience there that what the Iraqi children need is medicine not machine guns. The Japanese military should definitely not be sent to Iraq. The American-led occupation should end immediately and the United Nations should take over control."

Even though doubts about sending the troops are held by many people, support for Prime Minister Koizumi has gone up over the last month. His ratings jumped eight points to 54% in the most recent survey. This would appear to indicate that even though the majority of people are against the dispatch, Koizumi's popularity will allow him to fully deploy the troops. The only thing that could derail this plan is troop casualties. In an attempt to avoid this, Koizumi has taken every conceivable precaution to protect the soldiers who will be living in virtual fortress-like conditions.

After attending a sending-off ceremony in Tokyo on January 16, the Asahikawa advance team and twenty other GSDF personnel, headed for Narita Airport. They all departed that evening on a commercial flight bound for Kuwait. Thus, despite a great many reservations, Japan has taken another step along the road to dismantling the restrictions imposed on it after its defeat in the Second World War and Koizumi is nearer his goal of establishing Japan as a more assertive player on the world stage.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 16 January 2004,, and is republished with permission.)

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