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Japan is not sending the ‘right stuff’ to Iraq

by Philip Brasor

If ever there was a time to discuss the constitutional legality of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, it’s now. The SDF has done peacekeeping work, but it’s never been placed in a country like Iraq, which for all intents and purposes is still at war.

The trouble is that the government doesn’t have the luxury of sitting around and discussing the Constitution. They have more pressing problems, the most immediate one being that the SDF isn’t up to the task of soldiering in a place where soldiers are targets. Last week on Asahi TV’s “Sunday Project,” during a grilling of Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba, one reporter compared the dispatch to “sending a student driver into a Formula 1 race.” On Nippon TV’s evening news show last Monday, an international defense expert said the SDF would be going to Iraq with some sophisticated equipment “that they don’t really know how to use.”

Commentators are saying the Liberal Democratic Party is worried about the effect dead Japanese soldiers will have on next summer’s Upper House elections. That’s why Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi continually harps on the “timing” of the dispatch. Last Sunday, during a discussion on NHK, an LDP lawmaker actually became fuzzier while trying to be specific: “We must find a method for judging the situation in order to decide what we should do.”

This week, the government will receive a “field study” of that situation, but so far policy has been determined by forces it can’t control. On Nov. 12, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told reporters the dispatch would take place by the end of the year. The next day, several dozen Italian military police were killed in Iraq, and Fukuda said the dispatch would not take place by the end of the year.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, interviewed on CNN about Fukuda’s backpedaling, said what everyone knew to be true but no one in Japan had the nerve to say as bluntly: “The terrorists have scared Japan.” While Ishiba stated on TV Asahi that “we will not yield to terrorists,” over on NHK the LDP representative said something about studying the feasibility of “carrying out humanitarian activities from the sky,” which makes it sound as if they’re going to drop stuff on cities along with instructions.

Ken Joseph, a Tokyo-based humanitarian aid worker who has visited Iraq repeatedly since the U.S.-led invasion, observed on TV Asahi’s morning news show last Monday that there’s no particular reason why Japan has to send soldiers for reconstruction tasks. He said the Iraqi people have a high opinion of Japan, and that if Japan helped Iraq without sending troops they’d be more impressed.

But not sending troops seems to be out of the question, since the SDF dispatch is more important than the humanitarian aims. Ishiba said, “If we yield, we will look bad,” since Japan has tied its national interests to those of the United States. “We are not a dependent state (zokkoku), but we have to act like one.”

This dependency on the United States is directly connected to the SDF’s presumed deficiencies in military preparedness. Because the LDP admits that Japan relies on the United States for its security, the SDF’s status as a “self-defense force” has always been questionable. Its existence is mostly symbolic, though even its symbolism is open to interpretation. Until the government gets up the nerve to debate in earnest Article 9 of the Constitution, which forbids the SDF’s existence, the SDF will always be irrelevant in a practical sense.

However, the SDF’s symbolic role in the Iraq War is clear. The United States needs to show the world that some countries still support its invasion with bodies and not just words and money. Japan would be the largest economic power other than the United States to send troops, if it ever does.

The problem for the LDP is how to convince the nation that the SDF dispatch is in Japan’s interests. For the time being, the government mimics the U.S. position, which is safeguarding the new freedom that has supposedly been bestowed on Iraq and fighting the terrorists who want to usurp those freedoms. (Though in theory they can’t do that since the dispatch law passed in July forbids the SDF from being sent into a combat zone.)

Ishiba framed these interests in terms of economics. “If we can’t get oil from this area, our lives will be destroyed,” he said. In other words, if Japan doesn’t send troops to Iraq, it has no right to buy oil from it. “People who join the SDF do so to help protect Japan,” he added, thus implying that oil is a strategic interest worth dying for.

Throughout his performance on “Sunday Project” Ishiba kept finishing statements with the line, “This is something we must ask ourselves.” “This” refers to the definition of terrorism, the role of the United Nations, or even the status of foreigners in Japan. The real meaning of this rhetorical flourish is: What is the purpose of the SDF if not to go into dangerous places to defend Japan’s interests?

The question presupposes that these interests are non-negotiable, and that only armed forces can do the job (Koizumi said as much in the Diet last Wednesday). But another question Japan might ask itself is what sort of difference it wants to make in Iraq. Last Tuesday, on TV Asahi, an Iraq-based journalist from Asia Press reported that the people of Samawah, the city where the SDF are due to work, are expecting Japanese companies to help them, not Japanese soldiers. Given Japan’s image in the world it’s a logical misunderstanding, and one the Japanese public should take as a compliment.