Following the assassination of Dr. Tetsu Nakamura in Afghanistan earlier this month, the government of Afghanistan held a memorial ceremony for him as his body was delivered to the airplane that would take it out of the country. President Ashraf Ghani was one of the pallbearers. When Nakamura’s coffin arrived at Narita Airport on Dec. 8, the highest public official on hand was Japan’s state minister of foreign affairs.
This was surprising given Nakamura’s international reputation as a humanitarian. He had been active in Afghanistan since the 1980s, first as a practicing physician and then as an aid worker building irrigation systems that have improved the lives of so many. In fact, Nakamura was probably more famous in Afghanistan than he was in Japan. The Diet did observe a moment of silence in his memory and, last week, he was decorated posthumously by the government for his international service. Nevertheless, Nakamura’s relationship with his own government was not necessarily cordial while he was alive.
Takashi Matsuo explains this paradox in his Dec. 15 Mainichi Shimbun column. After pointing out that there is no greater honor for a person in Afghan culture than to have the president carry their coffin, Matsuo said that there was an obvious cognitive gap between Nakamura’s reputation in the world and his reputation at home, at least as far as the Japanese government is concerned. The writer checked the schedule of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Dec. 8 and found no real conflict that would have prevented him from meeting Nakamura’s remains when they arrived at Narita.
The sticking point was Nakamura’s unabashed support for Article 9 of the Constitution, which renounces war and militarism unconditionally. It is this perceived attribute of Japanese identity that allowed him to work in a war-torn country such as Afghanistan for so long in relative safety, even after the United States launched military operations in the country in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In an essay she wrote for Asahi Shimbun’s Ronza on Dec. 7, picture book author Hideko Nagano chronicled her friendship with Nakamura, who said at the time of the U.S. invasion that conditions became much worse for aid workers. However, because he was Japanese and the Afghan people equated Japan with its war-renouncing Constitution, he could still build trust with locals, even while violence flared around them.
This tenet of faith became a kind of mantra with him, and, according to Matsuo, effectively estranged him from Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Matsuo describes how in 2001, when the Lower House was discussing Japan’s role in the U.S.-led “War on Terror,” Nakamura was asked to give testimony as to the situation in Afghanistan. Insisting that Article 9 is an effective deterrence, he warned the Japanese government about giving in to pressure to send the Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East to help the Americans. Such a move would seriously undermine Afghans’ trust of Japan. According to Matsuo, the reaction to Nakamura’s statement was so negative that he was heckled by an unnamed lawmaker, a seriously rude response given that Nakamura is not a politician. In her essay, Nagano also refers to this incident, saying that some LDP members were so angered by his testimony that they asked if some of Nakamura’s comments could be stricken from the record.
Frustrated by the government’s tack over the ensuing years, Nakamura became uncharacteristically blunt about the matter and, according to Matsuo, once publicly called Abe’s third administration “stupid.” It has been Abe’s mission to elevate the SDF to military status, an aim that has not gone unnoticed in places such as Afghanistan. Although Nakamura’s killers have yet to be identified, it’s been known for some time that he had been targeted, thus pointing to a change in Japan’s image of neutrality.
Even in the generally glowing domestic coverage of Nakamura in the wake of his killing, most media avoid referring to his differences with the government. NHK recently rebroadcast a September 2016 documentary about Nakamura’s irrigation project that goes into precise detail about the engineering difficulties involved and how he essentially learned hydrology from scratch. But while the program occasionally mentioned that all this very difficult construction was going on in an actual war zone, it left out Nakamura’s views on the matter and didn’t mention security measures. The implication was that the locals’ admiration for Nakamura’s integrity would protect him but, apparently, that wasn’t the case anymore.
Nakamura was always careful about respecting the people and the culture he worked with, so there was never any suggestion that his assassination was grudge-based. He was a baptized Christian, but was also known to be solicitous to his Muslim hosts. Once during a lecture in Japan, someone asked about the inferior status of women in Afghan society, and he said he understood people’s disapproval of such constraints. His job was not to change people’s thinking but rather to save lives, which, as a physician, was his first priority. Although some people will never be satisfied with such an answer, it clearly shows he was not going to give his hosts any reason to resent his presence.
The work was paramount and he leveraged Japan’s pacifism to get it done, but not in a cynical way. In an interview with the Nishinippon Shimbun in 2014, he explained that Article 9 was Japan’s great legacy from past conflicts, and that neglecting it was akin to acknowledging that the millions of Japanese who died in the conflict did so in vain. It was a shield that Nakamura wielded to fulfill his oath as a healer and a moral man.