Expatriates find uneasy refuge in Foreign Legion

by Dai Kaneko

Kyodo

Getting money or a residence visa are two of the biggest motives for joining the French Foreign Legion.

But two Japanese who joined about a year ago — Takeo Oshiro, 22, and Shingo Haebaru, 24 — had different reasons for joining the private army.

“I did not want to live among dead-looking people in Japan,” said Oshiro, who was a job-hopping part-time worker in Japan. He is now stationed in Djibouti.

Haebaru, a former security guard also in the country, said, “I wanted to live an interesting life.”

The soldiers’ names are not their real names but ones given to them by an experienced Japanese member of the legion. It is the custom in the force for new soldiers to be given new names.

The French Foreign Legion was inaugurated in 1831 as a regular part of the French military and is made up of about 7,700 soldiers from 135 countries, including slightly fewer than 50 from Japan.

They are mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, with a few hailing from industrialized countries. Akihiko Saito, a former Ground Self-Defense Forces paratrooper who died in a firefight in Iraq in 2005 while associated with a British security company, belonged to the legion for about 20 years.

Now French forces are stationed in the African country based on a defense agreement between the Islamic state and its former colonial ruler.

Fresh recruits stationed in France are paid about 1,000 euro (about ¥160,000) a month, but their salary triples during their four-month stay in Djibouti.

The Arabian Peninsula faces Djibouti across the sea, and the U.S. military has had a base in the African country since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

One day in January, the Foreign Legion was carrying out a mine-removal drill on the assumption that enemy forces had planted mines near the airport.

Clad in green camouflage, Haebaru used his mine detector to sweep the clay-colored ground on the orders of Sgt. Masaki Takamura, 26.

Takamura began his career in the legion under the new name of Totori Inagaki, but after a year he was allowed to apply to recover his real name in accordance with the legion’s rule.

Beyond barbed wire nearby, a shirtless man who looked like a U.S. serviceman jogged past, breaking the tenseness of the scene.

But Haebaru did not ease up and continued to sweep for mines.

The mine-sweeping team is made up of eight men, including Takamura and Haebaru. Other soldiers taking part in the drill were from China and Slovakia.

The legion can never be a friendly society. Commanders often issue unreasonable orders, and soldiers who cannot understand them are forced to do pushups. Some soldiers get injured in drills.

An African soldier said there is also racial discrimination in the legion and that Japanese soldiers often struggle with the language barrier.

Col. Thierry Marchand, who leads the Foreign Legion stationed in Djibouti, said the virtue of Japanese soldiers is their earnestness, but their weak point is their lack of French proficiency.

In fact, Oshiro and Haebaru have difficulty understanding the French used by their commander and do not get along with some of their comrades.

“I might stand out (because I wear glasses). I always get mocked and want to cry,” said Oshiro, who enjoys playing his portable game machine in the barracks.

Haebaru, a big eater despite his small size, said, “I now understand what a happy place I was in in Japan.”

Soldiers sign a five-year contract when entering the legion. Few can endure the life and desert, but Oshiro said he won’t give up until he becomes an officer.

Oshiro’s affection for Japan is limited, in sharp contrast with Haebaru, who has photos of his family on his locker.

Oshiro, who was raised in a fatherless family and is not on good terms with his mother, has not told her that he joined the legion.

After graduating from high school, Oshiro worked several part-time jobs but had no close friends in Japan.

He said his former classmates were pretenders.

“They have gone on to university, but they are always playing,” he said. “There are many young people in Japan who do nothing although they have the ability to do something.”

“Be willing to endure hardship. This is a saying I hate, but now, I cannot go on without this,” Oshiro said. “I would like to become important as quickly as possible and enjoy a happy life.”