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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (January 29, 2004)

Japanese Troops Hope the Yen is Mightier than the Sword

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

On Monday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi issued the order to dispatch the main contingent of about 530 Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) troops to the war-racked country of Iraq. One week earlier, an advance party of 30 soldiers arrived in the relatively peaceful southern Iraqi city of Samawah. After six decades of lurking in the shadows, the Japanese army is once again back on the battlefield, but this time deployed strictly on a humanitarian mission.

However, Japan's re-emergence as a global military player reveals that during its near sixty-year absence the country's military took a divergent evolutionary path from most of its international counterparts. While the US opts to deter would-be attackers by displaying its military power, Japan is instead choosing to disburse monetary promises. A fundamental component of Koizumi's Iraq deployment strategy is based around the hope that the yen is mightier than the sword.

In Japan, the country is split over the issue of troop deployment. Opposition parties are baying for Koizumi's blood, demanding he resign for violating the country's pacifist constitution. On Sunday, thousands rallied in Tokyo against sending troops to Iraq. By Japanese standards, this was a very large demonstration and illustrates the depth of feeling the issue has generated. The prime minister cannot afford casualties in Iraq. To minimize the risk to military personnel, Koizumi is pursuing an essentially two-pronged approach.

First, massive amounts of money are being pledged to various Iraqi reconstruction projects, especially those relating to the undeveloped southern Iraqi city of Samawah where Japanese ground troops will be based. It is hoped that this will make local people feel protective towards the Japanese and fear the loss of the substantial economic benefits they would forfeit if Japanese troops were forced to withdrawn due to causalities. The aim is to turn the troops from potential terror targets into protected treasure troves.

Japan is taking over from the Dutch army which has been stationed in Samawah for the last eight months. These soldiers have largely restricted their activities to patrolling the city, disappointing many locals who were hoping for more financial assistance. The Japanese reputation for generosity has already excited the city's inhabitants.

About a hundred local businessmen and professionals have formed the Association of Japanese Friendship, which is doing its best to welcome Japanese troops. Around the city, it has put up banners in Japanese and Arabic greeting the troops. Its beaming, yellow-suited chairman, Anmar Khudir, has also appeared on Japan's NHK TV to explain how people feel. "We care about the Japanese," he said. "So, we wanted you to know you are welcome."

An examination of recent Japanese financial pledges illustrates why the citizens of poor Samawah are so happy about the troop dispatch:

For 2004, Japan has already said that it will provide about 1.5 billion US dollars in grants to Iraq as part of the international reconstruction effort. On January 16, the day it sent a 30-man advanced party of troops to the region, the Foreign Ministry announced 4 billion yen (37.6 million US dollars) of specific spending plans. About 3.1 billion yen of this will be for the purchase of 620 police cars for cities across Iraq with 20 allocated for Samawah. A further 935 million yen (8.8 million US dollars) will be disbursed for the reconstruction of 271 schools in the cities of Samawah, Baghdad and the northern, oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Some of this money will also be used in other cities for the reconstruct of homes and key water and electricity facilities.

Since the Japanese advanced team arrived, more money has been allocated with Samawah being especially favored. The latest plans include about 26 billion yen in grants for the renovation and rebuilding of 13 Iraqi hospitals, one of which is in Samawah. The Samawah hospital will be prioritized, receiving an initial one billion yen grant. Eighty million yen has also been allocated for public relations activities to promote the work of the GSDF among local people.

For over a week, Samawah citizens have been regularly appearing on Japanese TV, requesting various forms of assistance. They are hoping the GSDF will be able to help repair war-damaged schools, restore the water and electricity supplies, provide employment opportunities, increase public safety and boost the local economy. "We want jobs. We want electricity," one man told the news cameras. A local goldsmith was quoted as saying, "The Japanese are going to improve the town one hundred percent. We will have clean water to drink, electricity, maybe even less crime."

Samawah citizens have so many requests and such high expectations about what the troops are going to do that the Japanese government is already beginning to worry that the GSDF contingent - and what it actually is able to do - might disappoint local people. The Japanese Foreign Ministry and the Defense Agency are coordinating their efforts in order to try to satisfy expectations and ensure the troops are in a safe environment.

Koizumi has also been attempting to find new ways to inject extra cash into Samawah. On Friday, he told parliament that apart from the Iraq funds already allocated, he was considering using official development assistance (ODA) to help create jobs in Samawah and other cities.

"We are considering using ODA to give support for improving the daily lives of the ordinary Iraqis. This will also help to create employment for the local people," Koizumi said of the ODA option.

Samawah has been a relatively peaceful city, although an Iraqi policeman was shot dead on Saturday afternoon. In early January, two men demonstrating about unemployment were shot dead by Iraqi police, and in late December shots were fired at Dutch troops. By comparison with the daily attacks on American forces, Samawah can be classified as a fairly safe posting.

Ironically, Japanese troops may actually become targets because of the substantial financial support they are giving the US-led reconstruction effort. Recent unconfirmed reports claim that five suspected insurgents planned to attack Japanese troops in Samawah. Iraqi police arrested five men on the day the Japanese advance team arrived in the city.

The other, far less publicized, element of Japan's Iraq policy is to keep Japanese ground forces out of harms way as much as possible. This will be achieved by stationing the troops in an isolated, fortress-like barracks and making the number-one mission priority self protection. Should the troops come under fire, they have orders to immediately retreat.

It is hoped these precautions linked with vast amounts of Japanese yen will minimize the danger to the troops and reduce the chances of casualties. Any loss of life could easily spell the end for Koizumi's premiership, rip his coalition apart and cause his Liberal Democratic Party to lose the July Upper House elections.

The stakes are incredibly high and Koizumi must be hoping he has made a safe bet. However, as in all games of chance, the outcome is far form certain.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. A longer version of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 27 January 2004, and is republished with permission.)

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