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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (February 2, 2004)

Japanese Army Re-emergences on the World Stage

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

On Monday 19 January, a sand-battered check-point at the Kuwaiti boarder with Iraq witnessed a pivotal moment in modern Japanese history. It was from this decidedly unspectacular location that an advanced party of about thirty Japanese soldiers entered war-torn Iraq. This small band of men became the first Japanese troops to enter a war zone since the end of the World War II, marking the re-emergence of Japan's military on the world stage after a six-decade absence. Precisely one week later, Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, issued an order to dispatch the main contingent of about 530 Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) personnel to Iraq. However, the momentous deployment decision has deeply divided the nation.

On the same day Japanese troops entered Iraq, a new plenary sessions of the Japanese parliament commenced. Prime Minister Koizumi used his speech to parliament as a platform for justifying his actions and to reassure China and South Korea of the peaceful intentions of Japanese troops. Chinese Vice-President Zeng Qinghong recently voiced concern about the dispatch, describing it as, "a sensitive issue for China." However, most senior Chinese figures have avoided directly commenting on the subject.

Mr. Koizumi's address was most keenly heard in the far-northern city of Asahikawa, which is located on the vast northern island-territory of Hokkaido. The snow-swept city has become the focus of national attention because it serves as the headquarters for the 2nd Division of the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), which is providing the bulk of the troops for Iraq. It was from the city's snow-ravaged airport that many of the GSDF advance-party set off, swapping Asahikawa's snow for Iraq's sand. On 1 February, the city will host the national sending-off ceremony for the main GSDF contingent.

Kunio Sasaki, a local politician for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), describes the mood in Asahikawa, "Opinion in Asahikawa is roughly split fifty-fifty, between those who are against sending troops and those who feel that it is our duty to support them. Everyone is united in their concern about the safety of the troops."

Sasaki's assessment of the public mood corresponds with the most recent national opinion polls which indicate that Japan is completely torn over the dispatch issue. A Mainichi survey showed both support and opposition for the dispatch exactly equal at 47%.

Mr. Koizumi has acknowledged the deep national split, but insists sending the military is the right decision for Japan. Mr. Sasaki disagrees, "I think the decision to send the troops is not really Mr. Koizumi's, but President Bush's. Iraq should be under United Nations control, not American occupation."

Mr. Koizumi confronted such criticisms in his opening address to parliament by carefully explaining the objectives of the dispatch. He said, ''Establishing a stable and democratic Iraq is extremely important for both the international community and our country." He added, "Japan would not be able to fulfill its duty to the international community if it neglected to dispatch its own personnel because of a risk of danger and instead just left the task to other countries."

However, the Japanese public does not seem to accept Koizumi's reasoning. An NHK poll for January showed that 82% of people do not think that the premier has sufficiently explained why the troops are being sent. Asahikawa, the home of many of the troops, is microcosm of such opinion.

Izumi Long, a mother-of-two who lives near the Asahikawa GSDF base, says, "Most of my friends are not happy about the troops being sent from Asahikawa to Iraq. It's a violation of the constitution." Article 9 of the Japanese constitution renounces war.

Last July, Japan enacted a special law that allowed for the deployment of its military to help rebuild Iraq, but troops were only meant to be sent to non-combat areas. Junichi Fujiwara, a professor at a women's college in Asahikawa, believes the special law does not currently apply, "Iraq is basically in a state of war and the GSDF was never meant to be sent under these conditions. There is nowhere in Iraq that is not a potential combat area."

Ryoji Yamauchi, president of Asahikawa University, gives a more pessimistic analysis of the situation. He observes, "Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair think Japan is just like Germany. But unlike Germany, Japan has never properly apologized for the crimes it committed during the war." He adds, "America just does not understand the true nature of Japanese nationalism or the real agenda of Japanese neo-nationalists. I believe the situation in Iraq is being exploited in order to violate the constitution and destroy Japan's status as a pacifist country."

Since the first Japanese troops entered Iraq, Mr. Koizumi has been vigorously refuting the severe criticisms of his policy and fending off the opposition calls for his resignation. He has also attempted to ease public anxiety about troop safety, emphasizing the peaceful nature of the mission. A recent poll showed that 53% people thought the GSDF should retreat if they came under fire. Seemingly responding to this concern Koizumi stated, "In the event that hostilities breakout near our troops, their activities will be temporarily suspended and they will take cover."

Naoto Kan, Leader of the main opposition DPJ underlined the historic dimension of the dispatch, saying, "Japan is now taking a different road from the one it has followed for the past 50 or so years."

(Copyright 2004 South China Morning Post. A different version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on 30 January 2004 and is republished with permission.)

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