Among the 550 Ground Self-Defense Force troops in the first deployment to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah were five men in green fatigues armed with musical instruments.
The musicians were one small effort by the GSDF to build good relations in Samawah amid the violent conflict sweeping other parts of Iraq.
Unlike the peacekeeping operations Japan has taken part in over the last decade, there was no United Nations umbrella for the GSDF troops when they landed in Iraq. That meant the contingent has had to go it alone in building working relations with the local people.
The musicians belonged to the Second Band of the GSDF Second Division, headquartered in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, home to most of the first three-month troop contingent sent to Iraq on the humanitarian aid mission.
The Ground Staff Office at Defense Agency headquarters in Tokyo did not include musicians on the dispatch list. But GSDF Lt. Gen. Yoshihisa Kono, commander of the Second Division, added the five, assigning them to supply fuel, work on water projects and perform vehicle maintenance.
“I felt music would be an important tool to foster friendship with the people of Samawah,” said Kono, 56. “As you know, music has no national boundaries.”
The five — a bassist and trombonist, a trumpeter, a saxophonist, a keyboard player and a drummer — received training on oiling the Samawah camp’s appliances and operating water-purification units before they left Japan in February.
Between official camp duties during their three-month tour, the five took time to visit seven local elementary schools and played popular Japanese songs, including “Shimauta,” for the children.
“They all stood up and clapped along. I could see their expressions change during our performance,” said Sgt. Maj. Norihiko Asanuma, leader of the five-man band, after his return to Asahikawa.
A 52-year-old bassist and trombonist, Asanuma even composed a march titled “Fukko” (“Reconstruction”) before heading to Samawah.
For the GSDF, the biggest concern was how the Japanese troops would get along with the Iraqis, because poor community relations could put the troops at risk.
So the GSDF created a special 90-member unit whose job has been to communicate with local people. An advance team of 30 was sent ahead to prepare for the troops’ February arrival.
The unit commander, Col. Masahisa Sato, shuttled around Samawah in the role of diplomat, meeting local government officials, religious leaders, schoolteachers and doctors.
The Iraqis had extremely high expectations of what the Japanese could do for them. Sato listened to their requests and then told them what the troops could realistically accomplish.
Before the Asahikawa contingent’s departure, all members studied basic Arabic conversation and Iraqi culture, and underwent a month of special drills to prepare them for every possible situation. Their scenario manual was nearly 5 cm thick.
The guidebook included instructions on the appropriate use of weapons, as well as how to deal with Iraqis who might come to the camp to lodge complaints.
Alcohol, pork and any sexually suggestive materials were strictly prohibited.
All packages sent from home were opened and checked at GSDF bases in Japan before being shipped to Iraq. Weekly magazines were stripped of pages containing nude photos. Even nonalcoholic beer and instant noodles bearing pictures of pigs were removed from parcels.
Col. Koichiro Bansho, commander of the first contingent, repeated to the soldiers under his command that they should try to see things from the Iraqi perspective.
Security always a concern
Despite efforts to be accepted by the Iraqis, Self-Defense Forces officers acknowledge that the security situation in Samawah has not been as good as expected.
No GSDF soldiers have been killed or wounded, but in recent months their activity has been mainly limited to duties inside their camp, including water purification and distribution.
Fighting has meanwhile continued in other parts of the country.
Resistance to the U.S.-led occupation has spread and is becoming more organized, and U.S. forces have been responding with bombing and house-to-house raids.
The U.S.-led forces’ failure to find weapons of mass destruction and revelations of prisoner abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison have damaged the credibility of the U.S. presence as liberators and led to further animosity toward the occupation forces.
Many Iraqis outside of Samawah appear to see the Japanese troops as part of the U.S-led occupation force. A series of mortar attacks near the GSDF’s Samawah camp were believed by the Defense Agency to have been made by outsiders who came into the city during the night.
Japanese aid workers in Baghdad said there were an increasing number of warnings that Japanese might be attacked, from the Foreign Ministry and at information exchange meetings with other groups, after the government in December approved the GSDF mission.
Japanese civilians who were taken hostage near Fallujah in April said their captors, demanding the pullout of the SDF troops from Samawah, grilled them to see if they were spies for the Americans.
The murderers of Japanese journalists in May reportedly called one of the victims a “puppet of the United States” before shooting him.
“Neutrality and impartiality” are vital for any party to engage in humanitarian operations, said Sadako Ogata, president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
As a former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, she supervised many refugee relief missions in cooperation with military forces, including the protection of Kurds in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, and in Bosnia, amid the ethnic cleansing by the Serbs.
During her 10-year UNHCR stint, however, Ogata faced many frustrating situations in which humanitarian activities were threatened by military actions.
Kosovo was one such example, she said. “Three months of NATO bombing to force the withdrawal of Serb security forces aggravated the exodus of ethnic Albanian refugees and complicated the already delicate situation in the region.”
Beyond Japan’s borders
The Self-Defense Forces, whose main mandate remains the defense of Japan, have been engaged in selected missions overseas for about 13 years now.
The first mission abroad involved four Maritime Self-Defense Force minesweepers that were sent to the Persian Gulf after the Gulf War.
Rear Adm. Yoshiyuki Morita, who commanded two of the four minesweepers from aboard the lead ship — the most dangerous position in the task force — remembered how, while he was putting his life on the line, there was strong public opposition back home toward the mission.
He received his orders just 10 days before departure and had to rush around trying to get life insurance for his crew — a difficult task at the time because Japan had no group policy for service members.
“If we had lost a man, things would not have gone that smoothly afterward,” said Morita, now commander of the MSDF Mine Warfare Force.
To date, the SDF has not lost a life on an overseas mission. The forces have participated in eight U.N.-authorized peacekeeping missions and contributed to two U.S-led operations, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said publicly that the last two missions are a part of Japan’s “international contribution.”
But some ranking officers said they knew the Afghanistan and Iraq missions are completely different from the kind of “international cooperation” Japan provided in the past. Japan was clearly taking part in the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing,” they said.
In August 2002, the SDF stationed three officers, one from each of the three branches, at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. The number was reduced to two in late April.
Since the U.S-led campaign in Afghanistan in October 2001, Tampa has been the center of global military diplomacy. It is where the United States invites military personnel from nations participating in its war on terrorism.
The so-called coalition village now flies the flags of more than 60 nations.
The uniformed representatives live in trailers in a parking lot at Central Command and attend regular briefings and social functions. They are in direct contact with U.S. commanders to discuss their countries’ military policies.
The Japan-U.S. alliance was not part of the equation there, said MSDF Capt. Yuzo Shibata, who was sent to the coalition village in May 2003 and returned to Tokyo in March. “I felt Japan was just one of” the many countries represented in Tampa.
But two years after the village was created, Japan found its presence growing in importance, Shibata said, “because few nations, including Japan, could continue the same support as they started.”
One of the MSDF’s duties has been to supply fuel to U.S. and other allied ships supporting the war on terrorism in Afghanistan since 2001, based on a special law hastily enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
When Shibata reported at an October briefing at the village that the Diet had extended its antiterrorism law by another two years, it was met with applause from the entire room, including Gen. John Abizaid, commander at the headquarters.
Around the time the Cabinet gave final approval of the Samawah dispatch plan in early December, Shibata was invited to attend briefings at the village on Iraq.
The briefings had a much more confidential air than those on Afghanistan and were open only to officials from a few countries, he said.
The commitment of regular service members has also been an essential part of Japan’s success in its new overseas missions.
Katsuji Hoshino, a retired GSDF captain whose son, Katsuhiro, 24, has just returned from duty in Samawah, said, “Three times, I opposed his joining the SDF.”
Hoshino said he knew that when Japan passed the law in 1992 allowing participation in U.N.-backed peacekeeping operations, the SDF was going to change from the type of military that had provided him with a safe job and a stable salary.
Although Hoshino was worried about his son’s safety, he did not say a word when Katsuhiro told him he was going to Iraq.
“It’s a different world than the one we once lived in,” Hoshino said. “Peace is an illusion, and Japan can no longer be isolated from international society.”