Japan sends first troops to war zone since 1945ASAHIKAWA, Japan As an advanced team of Self-Defense Forces prepared to leave Friday for Iraq, the first Japanese troops to be deployed since World War II to a country with ongoing combat continued their training at their snow-covered base here in northern Japan.
The troops have taken Arabic lessons, and learned about the Koran and Ramadan. They have focused, above all, on mastering their rules of engagement, the way in which they would respond to a hostile situation in southern Iraq. While the details are kept secret, the rules are said to be more muscular than the guidelines under which the forces have operated in the past.
At the same time, because the Self-Defense Forces are not considered a military, the rules are weaker than those under which American and other soldiers operate. In a country where militarism led to catastrophe in World War II and pacifism has defined the postwar period, the nature of its forces goes to the heart of what kind of country Japan wants to be.
The governing party is expected to propose revisions to Japan's Constitution by 2005, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said that he wants the Self-Defense Forces to become a full-fledged military.
In addition to talk of helping the Iraqi people, the government is for the first time drawing in stark terms a direct link between its forces' overseas activities and Japan's national interests. Shigeru Ishiba, the defense minister, pointed out in an interview that Japan imports 90 percent of its oil from the Middle East, the largest share of any country. "The reason we can lead such an affluent life, such as using electricity to this extent," Ishiba said, waving his hands at ceiling lights in his office, "driving cars as much as we like, avoiding the cold and having summer fruit in winter - it is because we have stable oil supply from the Middle East, isn't it?"
"To have other countries, including the United States, Britain and South Korea do all the unpleasant, hard things, while we take the oil after Iraq becomes affluent and peaceful through the painful efforts of the rest of the world, I don't think that would be acceptable."
Ishiba said that the likelihood of encountering hostile situations had been low in previous overseas missions. "However, this time the possibility is high," Ishiba said. "Therefore, we have been pushing the conventional training further to make it thorough."
Members of the ground forces based here will make up the core of the 550 troops to be dispatched to southern Iraq, with the real deployment expected to take place over the next couple of months. Considered non-combat troops, they will engage in humanitarian activities, such as supplying water and medical services and rebuilding schools and other infrastructure.
The forces will be better equipped than they have ever been on an overseas mission. But unlike a real military, they will likely operate under "passive" rules of engagement, said Tetsuya Nishimoto, a former chairman of the Self-Defense Forces' Joint Staff Council. The rules would specify appropriate ways to respond, for instance, to "suicide attacks," he said.
Government critics say that engaging in fighting would violate the country's Constitution, which bars Japan from having a military and permits it to have forces only for self-defense. But Ishiba said that responding to an attack fell within the limits of the Constitution. Unlike previous missions overseas, the forces will operate with greater independence in Iraq, said General Hajime Massaki, the chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defense Force.
"Past international contributions, including peacekeeping operations, were carried out under the United Nations framework, whereas this time the dispatch involves many aspects the Self-Defense Forces have never experienced before," Massaki said in a written reply to a question. "For example, we create the framework by ourselves and make agreements with the countries concerned."
Iraq will amount to a big step in a series of smaller steps taken by the Self-Defense Forces in the last 10 years. Indeed, if the force is not yet a military, it is no longer the force it was a decade ago. Back then, severely restricted by the Japanese revulsion at their military past, the forces' sole mission was to defend the country against an attack, as stated in a 1976 national defense program outline.
In a 1995 outline, after Japan was criticized for its so-called checkbook diplomacy during the Gulf war, the forces' priorities were enlarged to include, in order of importance: Japan's defense; responding to large-scale disasters; and contributing to creating a more stable security environment.
Like the United States military, the Japanese forces are now undergoing another transformation that includes introducing two missile defense systems from the United States. With the focus shifting away from countering an invasion, the number of tanks, for instance, is expected to be cut in favor of raising spending to address missile and terrorist threats.
A new defense program outline is expected to be released by the end of this year. With time, the Japanese people's aversion to a military has also weakened. For decades after World War II, most Japanese regarded the forces with little respect, considering their main role as responding to natural disasters.
An overseas mission was unimaginable. Katsutoshi Kawano, 49, a rear admiral in the Maritime Self-Defense Force, said that popular suspicion of the military was one of the reasons behind Japan's failure to participate in the Gulf war.
"At the bottom of that debate was a sense of distrust among the public," he said. "In those days, because of the memory of Japan's history, the pre-war era and the war, people were allergic to the military, which was passed on to the Self-Defense Forces." In the last decade, with the forces participating in peacekeeping missions in places like East Timor and Cambodia, they have gained the trust of the population, he said.