Sarmad Ali, a college student from Iraq who lives in Japan, is planning to visit the southern Iraqi city of Samawah in early March to help locals communicate with Japanese troops stationed there with a phrase book he published in Japan last year.
“I want to let Iraqis have some new information about Japan, as Japanese people are going to Iraq for peaceful purposes,” said Ali, expressing his gratitude for Japan sending Self-Defense Forces troops to his homeland to provide humanitarian assistance.
Ali, 24, is not the only Iraqi resident in favor of the SDF being sent to Iraq, a hot issue in Japan where military affairs are often controversial because of the war-renouncing Constitution.
Rafid Al-Bakri, a 37-year-old businessman who has lived in Japan for two decades, is planning a similar trip in mid-March so he can offer the SDF what he calls “business with love.”
Although Ali and Al-Bakri, who both grew up in Baghdad but now live in Tokyo, know each other in the tiny community of Iraqis in Japan, they arranged their trips at the same time by coincidence.
But the surge in Japanese public interest in Iraq, due to the contentious deployment of some 1,000 SDF personnel for the riskiest mission undertaken by Japanese troops since the end of World War II, is apparently behind their decisions.
Ali has launched what he calls an Iraq communications support project and will take 200 copies of his Japanese-Iraqi phrase book to hospitals and other locations in Samawah and Baghdad where Japanese are helping or are expected to visit.
He plans to distribute the books as gifts to help Japanese there and Iraqis who come into contact with them communicate more easily.
The book is an Iraqi version of a booklet series designed to enable Japanese tourists to communicate with locals by at least pointing a finger at some often-used words written in Japanese and local languages. It also includes many illustrations.
The SDF has purchased 400 copies of the book, which was published in August, with some appearing on news photos from Samawah, according to the publisher, Joho Center Publishing Co.
“I’m very proud of them (SDF troops). They are leaving behind their families and their lives in Japan for us. Iraq is a dangerous country but they are risking their lives for us,” Ali said, speaking half in Japanese and half in English.
Although it is unlikely that the book will earn a profit, given the current security situation that bars most Japanese from visiting the country, the tiny publisher decided to go ahead when Ali visited with a proposal to compile an Iraqi version, said Akiko Sato, in charge of sales promotion at the publishing house.
The son of a diplomat, Ali lived in Japan between 1988 and 1990 and again between 1997 and 1999, and began studying at Kokushikan University in April last year.
He left Baghdad shortly before the U.S.-led war began in March last year and was upset when he temporarily lost contact with his parents, but said he is now optimistic that conditions in Iraq will improve.
“Let’s build a new history together,” he said, adding that he expects exchanges of people between Japan and Iraq to increase in the future.
So far, however, the official number of Iraqis in Japan has declined, probably to less than 30, officials at the Iraqi Embassy in Japan said. The number stood at 66 at the end of 2002, according to a Japanese immigration figures.
Most of the Japanese nationals in Iraq are SDF personnel, and the numbers are to rise to 550 by late March, along with journalists and a handful of aid workers. There are few other visitors given the government’s top-level travel warning.
According to Al-Bakri, who says he knows nearly every Iraqi resident of Japan, the community, excluding diplomats, had less than 10 members before the 1991 Persian Gulf War but has risen to around 30 in the past decade.
The increase is mostly the result of the arrival of an extended family of 15 from Babylon, south of Baghdad, he said.
Many of the Iraqis live close to each other in the suburbs of western Tokyo and make their living as translators and used car dealers for export to Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, he said.
Al-Bakri said he was opposed to the SDF dispatch out of security fears, but now hopes to do his best to help the SDF avoid suffering casualties.
He is planning to visit the SDF in Samawah during his next trip home from March.
“I want to go to Samawah, meet Sato-san (Col. Masahisa Sato, leader of the advance SDF unit in Samawah) and other people, and think how they can ensure their safety together,” he said. “I can arrange interpreters, guards and other reliable personnel if they want.”
With the end of the U.S.-led war last year, Al-Bakri set up a company in June in Baghdad with local partners to explore the numerous potential business opportunities between Japan and Iraq.
He initially had a hard time finding a job in Tokyo, but says he wants to share the possibility of doing business in Iraq with the tiny electrics company that has employed him for a decade to express his gratitude.
“I have spent half my life in Japan and my children are half-Japanese. I don’t think of Japanese as foreigners and want to take care of them,” Al-Bakri said.
He came to Japan in 1983 following his father, also a diplomat, but stayed after his parents went home due in part to the outbreak of the Gulf War.