Japanese Troops Go Abroad for the First Time Since WWII

Roundup: Media's Take

Mutsuko Murakami, writing for the South China Morning Post (Jan. 10, 2004)

In the future, historians may define 2004 as a significant turning point for Japan. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is sending Self-Defence Forces abroad to a war zone for the first time since the second world war. He will give formal orders this month to despatch up to 700 troops to Iraq and its vicinity to"help rebuild the war-ravaged country".

A mainstay of about 600 troops will be stationed in Samawah, in southern Iraq, which the Japanese government calls a"non-combat zone". Their duties will include helping with medical services, the water supply and restoring public facilities. Members of Japan's air force will be in charge of transporting goods and equipment from Kuwait to Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and Balad, while the navy will move equipment and vehicles required for the aid work.

"Japan is not going to war," Mr Koizumi has insisted. The move has triggered much controversy, and divided public opinion. Some have challenged whether it is legal under Japan's present constitution. According to numerous surveys, a majority oppose the despatch.

A new law was created in 1992 which allows Japan to send its forces abroad to participate in United Nations-led humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts in non -war zones. As a result, military personnel have taken part in campaigns in Cambodia and East Timor.

But Iraq is a different scenario. The public was shocked when two Japanese diplomats were killed by an insurgent group south of Tikrit in November.

The Self-Defence Forces, although heavily-armed, are allowed to use weapons only if they are attacked first, and they are not expected to get involved in combat activities - rules that will be tested amid the chaos of Iraq.

In reality, the despatch is a way to maintain and reinforce the alliance with the United States. With North Korea's nuclear threats hovering in the background, Japan was quick to endorse Washington's mission in Iraq; Mr Koizumi announced in October a US$ 1.5 billion package towards reconstruction.

Japan's constitution prohibits war, renouncing the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. There has been heated debate, questioning whether the despatch of forces to Iraq is unconstitutional. Mr Koizumi has said the constitution's preamble urges the nation to play a key role in international society, and emphasised the importance of offering humanitarian assistance.

He pledged to ban Japan's forces from transporting other countries' ammunition, thus avoiding criticism that Japan may act together with another nation in war activities, or that it will practice"the right to collective defence" that the government acknowledges is also prohibited.

"Our nation's will and the resolve of the Japanese public are being tested," Mr Koizumi has said.

This is certainly true, and not only on the issue of the troop despatch. Asian neighbours will be keeping a close watch on Mr Koizumi's initiative to revise the constitution. It is of particular concern when the decision is made by a leader who has made repeated controversial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan's war dead, including Class-A war criminals.

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