Governments are adept at using indirection and euphemism, and right now Japan’s is struggling with an issue whose terminology is exacerbating that struggle.

When translated directly, “kaketsuke keigo” means “rushing to provide security,” a phrase whose implied action begs for clarification. It’s being used by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to describe possible new capabilities of Self-Defense Force troops being sent abroad on peacekeeping missions, specifically those who will replace current SDF members stationed in South Sudan if that mission is extended to March.

Unlike their predecessors, the new troops will be able to come to the rescue of parties in danger when those parties request assistance, and they would presumably need weapon to execute such rescues. The difficulty stems partly from the fact that the Japanese press has never sufficiently explained the SDF’s mission in South Sudan, not to mention the situation in the country itself.

New Defense Minister Tomomi Inada went there earlier this month to study the situation so as to determine whether or not replacement personnel will be allowed to carry out kaketsuke keigo, but Inada herself didn’t seem to understand what she was doing. Since she was only in country for seven hours, accompanying media didn’t have time to leave her orbit and find out about the situation for themselves. They went all the way to Africa and all they came back with was a sound bite.

Matters became more confused during a subsequent Diet discussion about the friction between South Sudan President Salva Kiir’s government forces and rebel soldiers under the sway of former Vice President Riek Machar.

The SDF can only join peacekeeping operations in conflict-free zones, and an opposition lawmaker asked Inada if killings that occurred between armed groups associated with the South Sudan government in August didn’t constitute “fighting.” Inada preferred to call the violence a “clash.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe backed her up on this interpretation while acknowledging that killings took place and property had been destroyed, which would seem to indicate that war-like intentions were involved.

Then last week, the media were invited to observe training exercises by the SDF personnel who will be replacing the current ones in South Sudan. Although it’s assumed these troops could be permitted to carry out kaketsuke keigo, they didn’t bear arms during the exercise, which simulated the rescue of U.N. workers from a mob of demonstrators.

An SDF official told TV Asahi that the personnel were originally going to carry weapons during the exercise but that the government then told them not to. Another SDF official went further in an interview with Tokyo Shimbun, saying that the personnel didn’t carry arms “because (the government) doesn’t want the public to see any weapons.”

It’s obvious the government wants the SDF to do more than build roads, which is all they’re authorized to do now, but they are still nervous about suggesting SDF personnel could be in harm’s way. By and large the media didn’t say anything to make the government more nervous.

However, in the Oct. 15 edition of its in-depth news magazine, “Hodo Tokushu,” TBS reported on the attack by alleged government soldiers at a hotel where U.N. personnel, journalists and nongovernment organizations were staying.

The attack happened July 11, so TBS was a bit late covering it. The incident relates directly to kaketsuke keigo, since the people under attack sent out many calls for help, none of which were answered. One local journalist died and several women were gang-raped.

TBS presented the attack as the kind of thing peacekeeping forces are supposed to respond to, but even if the SDF had authorization to carry out rescues, they would have been prevented from doing so in this case because they would have been in conflict with presumed soldiers of a government they are supposed to be helping. No other members of the multinational peacekeeping forces “rushed to provide security” in this case. If SDF personnel discharged their weapons in the execution of a rescue and government soldiers were killed, the SDF would be liable for criminal charges in South Sudan. So why is the government so keen on authorizing the SDF to carry out kaketsuke keigo in South Sudan if, in fact, they can’t legally do so in the most likely instances that call for it?

When the LDP got the new security laws passed to expand SDF activities abroad, it changed the SDF from a purely defensive body to something more proactive, and allowing rescue missions fits that posture. During a discussion of the matter on Nippon TV in August, Masahisa Sato, a former SDF commander and current LDP lawmaker, pointed out that presently SDF personnel must “avoid conflict at all costs,” a directive easy to follow since the personnel sent overseas so far were only involved in constructing infrastructure such as roads.

“They are not combat troops,” said former U.N. official Kenji Isezaki during the same discussion. “And when they are stationed abroad, they are treated as guests.”

This exceptionalism has always bothered Abe, who believes the rest of the world thinks it unfair that Japan doesn’t share in the risk.

But while everyone recognizes that South Sudan, the world’s newest country, is in a de facto state of civil war, Japan officially does not even acknowledge it is in a state of conflict. SDF forces may be allowed to bear arms in case they need to defend themselves or carry out a rescue mission but the government wants the public to think there will be no situation in which either action would be a proper response.

The media is finally questioning these semantic gymnastics, and say that kaketsuke keigo is not as much of a done deal as it was thought to be.

Kenji Goto, the regular commentator on TV Asahi’s nightly news show “Hodo Station” and normally a staunch Abe supporter, concluded that the SDF’s mission in South Sudan was not a humanitarian one. They’re just there so the government can make a point, he said. If Goto won’t defend the administration, then who will?

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