The Ground Self-Defense Force’s mission to Iraq may not be supported by all of the public, as evidenced by the protest rallies staged nationwide last year as the government readied the dispatch.

But in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, home to most of the initial troop contingent, the yellow handkerchiefs displayed everywhere when the troops departed for Iraq in February suggest most of the city is behind them and praying for their safe return.

A big factor behind this support, according to some locals, may be the genial personality of Lt. Gen. Yoshihisa Kono, commander of the GSDF Second Division and a good friend of Asahikawa Mayor Koichi Sugawara.

Kono held many briefings to explain the situation in the southern Iraq city of Samawah, where the troops are deployed, to alleviate the concerns of families. He also visited Samawah in April to see how his troops were faring.

Another key component of the local support is that Asahikawa has been a military city for more than 100 years.

Since the Imperial Japanese Army’s Seventh Division moved its headquarters to Asahikawa in 1901, the city grew along with the service — with the army through the bend of World War II and with the GSDF after the war. The military presence gave rise to local industries and jobs.

Of the city’s population of 360,000, 3,000 are in the Self-Defense Forces at the Asahikawa Garrison located in the heart of the city. It is the largest employer after the municipal government, which boasts 3,300 workers. When family members are included, some 10,000 people are directly related to the GSDF.

“You have at least one friend in the SDF in this town,” said Atsuko Kubo, 51, a city assembly member who runs a local yakitori bar.

According to Kubo, it is difficult for locals to speak out against the troop dispatch, even if they doubt that Samawah is in fact a noncombat zone as insisted by the government. But roughly 80 percent of the letters, faxes, e-mails and phone calls the local bureau of the Hokkaido Shimbun received were those expressing concern over the dispatch, the bureau said.

Kubo was among the very few in Asahikawa who tried to challenge the dispatch, which she claimed “undermined the rule of law.”

Things are different in Sapporo, the prefectural capital of 1.88 million and home to most of the second troop contingent deployed to Iraq.

Most of the population seems indifferent to the deployment. But like other big cities, Sapporo has some staunch opponents.

Two of them, Noriaki Imai and Nahoko Takato, who were among the five Japanese taken hostage in Iraq in April, grew up and live in the area.

Before they were seized, they had reportedly been outspoken against the SDF mission. Their captors had threatened to kill them unless Japan pulled its troops from Iraq. All five drew criticism from the government, which managed to secure their release, because they had refused to heed the warnings not to travel to Iraq.

“(Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi was probably well aware of this city’s (supportive) nature when he chose to send the first (Iraq-bound) troop contingent from Asahikawa,” Kubo said.

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