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Commentary (February 23, 2004)

Japan's 'Fortress of Solitude' in Iraq

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

It's been almost a month since Japanese troops went to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah on a humanitarian mission that is taking place in a dangerous country where guerrillas target troops allied with the United States. So far so good for Japan, despite a couple of mortars fired downtown - although fortunately not at Japanese troops. Yet, in order to protect them, Japan will confine many soldiers to one of the most high-tech and expensive military camps ever constructed, one that includes a karaoke bar, massage parlor and gymnasium. Some of the facilities and gadgets in the ultra-advanced base will rival those used by the fictional hero Superman in his futuristic hideout, the Fortress of Solitude.

It may well be one of the most formidable military camps planet Earth has ever seen. And those given to hyperbole might say Iraq will not have witnessed the erection of such an extraordinary structure since King Nebuchadnezzar II began building the biblical Tower of Babel in what is now Babylon.

About 120 Japanese troops are already in Iraq, staying with Dutch troops, but the total could eventually reach 1,000 ground, marine and air defense forces. About 550 ground troops will live in the fortress - complete with moat, barricades, winding access roads, radar, sensing devices and other security "amenities" - far away from the town that has been relatively quiet, so far. In addition, Japan is sending about 300 maritime forces and 150 air defense forces.

For a staunchly pacifist nation, the deployment of Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) in war-torn Iraq is a potentially traumatic experience. It is the first time since World War II that the country's military has been on what is considered by many to be an active battlefield and public opinion is deeply divided. If there are major troop casualties, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's administration might fall. In an apparent response to domestic tensions, military policy has been focused on ensuring that Japanese troops are kept out of harm's way. And, in hopes of buying good will and protection, Japan is spreading around large quantities of yen for the construction of schools, hospitals, roads and other infrastructure projects in Iraq - as well as providing jobs to a population desperate and jobless.

The government's strategy is to place Japanese troops inside their barracks cocoon - but the term "barracks" hardly begins to describe the heavily fortified and guarded walls of their isolated luxury compound. Many of its soldiers will not be allowed to venture beyond the perimeter of the base. Prime Minister Koizumi is banking on the construction of an ultra-secure fortress to drastically decrease the chances of any casualties and ease some of the political pressure on his administration.

Very slight increase in public approval
Koizumi recently has been under fire domestically for the failure of the US and Britain to find any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Despite this growing problem, the prime minister can draw some comfort from a slight increase in support for his deployment policy.

Prior to the dispatch, the majority of people were opposed to sending the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, but since the troops have actually arrived in the country, opinion has been much more evenly divided. This shift has been reflected in several recent national opinion surveys. A poll taken by Nihon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) for February showed 46 percent in favor of the dispatch and 47 percent opposed, while the respective figures in the same poll in January were 42 percent and 51 percent. The Kyodo News survey for February gave a similar result, with 48.3 percent saying they support the dispatch while 45.1 percent said they were against it. The previous month's figures were 42.8 percent and 51.6 percent respectively, again, illustrating a shift. All mainstream media polls, however, show public opinion as roughly divided.

Under such circumstances, the prime minister is carefully calibrating his Iraq policy. The overarching objective of Koizumi's military strategy is to protect his troops at all costs; everything else, including the much-trumpeted humanitarian mission, is of secondary importance.

The primary task of the contingent of Japanese soldiers already deployed in Iraq, augmenting advance troops, is to construct the super-fort that will house up to 550 men. The ultra-modern base is being built on a muddy site about 10 kilometers outside Samawah. The isolated location was chosen in order to make the camp less vulnerable to attacks by suicide bombers and other insurgents. Many locals have been hired as construction workers and special machinery has been transported from Japan to help build the super-fort, which will cover about 2.5 square kilometers.

Once the foundations are finished, a one-meter-wide, two-meter-deep trench will be dug out around the camp to create a moat, which will be framed by barbed wire. This area will also be fitted with a special radar system for detecting ground movement in the vicinity, in hopes of minimizing the risks from mortar and artillery attacks. A concrete barrier will be erected around the inner circumference of the moat and car-stopping concrete blocks will be placed at intervals along roads near the camp to deter car bombs. The roads will also be constructed along non-linear paths in order to further minimize the risk of suicide car bomb attacks, in which bombers usually drive straight toward a target. Utilizing a feature of Superman's and other modern impregnable retreats, the camp will only have one massively fortified entrance, monitored by infrared surveillance cameras and high-tech security sensors.

All the comforts of home - karaoke, massage, Internet
Inside the protective web of electronics and concrete, Japanese troops will live comfortably in pre-fabricated buildings that will include a high-tech gymnasium, karaoke bar, massage parlor, state-of-the-art audiovisual facilities, computer and Internet rooms, a well-stocked Japanese library and the latest satellite and telecommunications equipment for daily contact with families back in Japan. Japanese troops will not suffer the language difficulties that befell the builders of Babel - inside their gleaming prefabricated towers only Japanese will be spoken.

Further, the government says off-duty Japanese troops will not be allowed to go into Samawah because of the risk of terrorist attacks. As a result, many troops will probably spend their entire tour of duty inside the heavily fortified compound. Although precise military details have not been released, the media has quoted government sources as saying that between 30 percent to 40 percent of the troops will be assigned to security duties related to guarding the camp. And any deterioration of public order in Samawah could mean that more troops would be assigned to security, more than 50 percent, thus severely curtailing troops' humanitarian work.

Until now order largely has been maintained. Although just last last week two mortars were fired into downtown Samawah, breaking a few windows, and on Tuesday a bomb damaged a video shop. No one was injured in either attack, and compared with the horrific series of suicide attacks in Iraq this month, the attacks in Samawah were insignificant. In Japan, however, these minor incidents dominated the media and Japanese military officials promised to review security measures. Koizumi has emphasized on several occasions that if the troops come under any form of attack, they will immediately retreat and temporarily suspend operations. Presumably, if real trouble flares up in Samawah, Japanese troops will barricade themselves inside their remote high-tech fortress.

In a recent NHK interview, Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba tried to shift attention away from Koizumi's Fortress Japan policy and focus instead on the slight shift in public opinion toward supporting the deployment. He claimed it was a sign that voters were beginning to accept the government's arguments about the need for troop deployment. He also predicted that support for this policy would steadily increase. However, a deeper analysis of the poll data does not back up these claims and underscores the precarious position of the Koizumi administration.

Japanese still doubt rationale for deployment
While there has definitely been an increase in support for the dispatch, the overwhelming majority of Japanese are dissatisfied with the explanation given for sending the troops, which partially explains why the government is carefully keeping them out of harm's way. In the NHK poll for January, 82 percent of respondents stated that Prime Minister Koizumi had provided an insufficient explanation for dispatching the troops. Despite an intensive government campaign, the same February poll revealed that 77 percent of people still remained unconvinced, with just 19 percent of the public believing that Koizumi had offered a sufficient explanation to justify sending troops to Iraq.

Support for the Koizumi cabinet has also dropped in most polls. NHK now puts it at 49 percent while Kyodo News records 48.8 percent. Both surveys register about 41 percent of people as saying they were against the policy-making cabinet. This is an extremely exposed position for Koizumi as it leaves him highly vulnerable to the mounting political fallout arising from American and British failure to find any weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The WMD threat was the primary reason given for launching a pre-emptive strike on Baghdad.

It hasn't happened yet, but if it begins to look as though the Iraq war is threatening regime change in both London and Washington, it will be impossible for Koizumi to avoid the political shock waves - even if no Japanese troops are injured. As such a staunch supporter of the Anglo-American position on a pre-emptive war against Iraq, any rocking of the Bush-Blair boat would destabilize Japan's prime minister. Koizumi's confidence has already been dented by the WMD woes of his American and British counterparts. Last week, he had a tough time responding to questions during a Diet session of a special committee on Iraq reconstruction. He was forced to concede that WMDs may never be found, observing, "So long as the person who has been hiding these weapons refuses to talk, then it may be difficult to locate them."

Koizumi now finds himself in the unenviable position of having his own political fate inextricably linked with those of President Bush, and to a lesser extent, Prime Minister Blair. Recent polls underscore his predicament and mean that the Fortress Japan policy is unlikely to change anytime soon. Koizumi's main hope for political survival is that the current downward swing in Bush's popularity is just a temporary blip and not a long-term trend. If it begins to look like Bush will lose the White House, then Japanese troops are going to have ample time to sample all the wonderful facilities their high-tech desert fortress has to offer.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 19 February 2004,, and is republished with permission.)

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