After it was learned that Akihiko Saito, a Japanese national working for a British security company in Iraq, was captured by a militant group during an ambush, the media seemed so stunned by the revelation that they couldn’t get their bearings. So they seized on the only source of local information they could find: Saito’s younger brother, Hironobu, whose behavior at a hastily arranged press conference in Chiba only added to the confusion.
“I never imagined I’d be sitting here,” he said to journalists, clearly upset and breaking down into tears. Though the fate of his brother was the main reason for his distress — Saito is thought to have been seriously injured in the attack — the emotional nature of the press conference was compounded by his shock at being scrutinized so suddenly. When he apologized to both the Japanese people and the Japanese government for the “trouble” his brother had caused, one couldn’t help but recall similar press conferences held last year where relatives of four Japanese civilians being held hostage in Iraq were called upon to apologize for causing such trouble.
The thing is, no one had accused Saito of causing trouble. If anything, he’s been painted as a rare man of action, even a hero. Unlike the case with the four civilians, which some high-ranking government officials turned into a strident morality lesson in personal responsibility, this time the Foreign Ministry addressed the Saito crisis without complaint. As some commentators have pointed out, since Saito was working for a private security company, he is that company’s responsibility, but the government has nothing to lose and everything to gain, since they might just succeed in saving a man who has come to represent the closest thing Japan has to a warrior.
Saito is not a warrior. Technically, he isn’t even a mercenary, though some reporters have described him as such. He is a security specialist who was in Iraq not because he wanted to be in the heat of battle, but because he wanted to make money. It’s one of the peculiarities of this war that private companies are reaping profits from the turmoil because the United States military cannot handle all aspects of the occupation by itself.
Thanks to Saito, the Japanese media is now talking at length and in detail about the outsourcing that has characterized the Iraq War. An article about private security companies in last week’s Sunday Mainichi mentioned that there are 60 such firms working in Iraq comprising 20,000 employees. These people do everything from guarding shipments to training local police to cooking meals. Some are never directly in harm’s way, but many are, and so far, 270 private security specialists have been killed in Iraq, though these numbers are never counted as military casualties.
As a statistic, Saito is unexceptional, but as an icon he’s custom-made for these times. The main story about Japan’s involvement in the Iraq War has centered on the government’s guarantee that the Self-Defense Forces it sent will not be involved in anything remotely dangerous. In essence, the Japanese soldiers deployed to Samawah, who are being protected by other countries’ troops, are in less danger than many Iraqi civilians.
Because Saito placed himself at risk by taking the security job, he becomes the only real soldier Japan has in Iraq, a dubious distinction, perhaps, but one that obviously resonates. Once the media found out that Saito spent 20 years in the French Foreign Legion and that dozens of other Japanese have also joined that famous force, reporters scrambled to locate veterans for war stories.
Tokyo Shimbun found a 34-year-old company employee in Kobe who spent one year in the FFL in the late ’90s. After graduating from university he joined the SDF, where he didn’t feel sufficiently challenged, so he quit and enlisted in the FFL. Though he admits the training was harder than that in the SDF, he wanted to go to war, and when it became clear he wasn’t going to see any real action, he left.
Another FFL veteran interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun, this one from Chiba, said he joined the SDF when he was only 16, but soon became disillusioned because, as he put it, “the SDF is only about defense” and he wanted to “really fight.” However, after he joined the FFL he realized that “the reality was different from my ideal,” and he left that, too, apparently in the middle of the night without telling anyone.
Saito, who was a member of the FFL’s elite forces, tried to disabuse Japanese recruits of the notion that life in the FFL was all excitement, all the time. Though Saito has been portrayed as a kind of soldier of fortune, what emerges from the descriptions given by people who worked with him is that he is a practical-minded man. He has more in common with the premodern idea of a soldier, who fought to eat, than with any sort of action hero. When he quit the FFL, he had put in enough years to qualify for a small pension, and it seems clear that he went to Iraq for the money, and not for the excitement.
Nevertheless, people still want to romanticize his choices. The ex-soldier from Chiba theorizes that if Saito were still alive he wouldn’t want to be rescued; that he probably has already resigned himself to dying a soldier’s death.
Though there will always be men who long to prove themselves in the kind of intense situation that only warfare can provide, there’s something chillingly anachronistic about this attitude when it’s held by Japanese men, who have been discouraged from thinking that way since the end of World War II. Obviously, it still has its appeal, not to mention its applications. Discussing the matter on a Fuji TV talk show, outspoken journalist Naoki Inose said that Japan needs people like Saito. “We could send him to North Korea,” he added. None of the other people on the show responded, which was probably just as well.