Iraq-bound Troops Wave Goodbye as Media Waves Yellow Handkerchiefs
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in a solemn send off to 550 Iraq-bound troops, on Sunday emphasized the humanitarian nature of their unprecedented mission and the hopes that they will return safely from the war-ravaged and dangerous nation. Serious casualties could be a political disaster for Koizumi, but political support for the controversial mission is inching upward in the polls.
The troops will soon depart from a military base in the northern city of Asahikawa, and the send-off ceremony was highly emotional, with the troops, their relatives and national television crews all present. Koizumi carefully underscored the themes of humanitarianism and safety, both of which are critical to his public relations strategy to win support for the controversial troop dispatch in this overwhelmingly pacifist nation.
Recent opinion polls suggest that this approach is working, as the number of people saying they support sending troops to Iraq is gradually increasing. Koizumi's governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) allies are waving yellow handkerchiefs - especially in front of cameras - to show support for non-combat Japanese troops about to embark on their dangerous mission in what is still considered a combat zone. The handkerchief device is evocative of the yellow ribbons familiar to supporters of United States soldiers deployed overseas, but few ordinary Japanese carry them.
The military ceremony officially marked the first large-scale dispatch of Japanese troops into a combat zone since World War II - an advance team of more than 35 troops is already on the ground in Iraq. Men and women from the Ground Self-Defense Forces based in Asahikawa will be deployed to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah in four separate groups starting on Tuesday. The first contingent will comprise about 80 military personnel.
Many Asahikawa residents were unhappy about the dispatch and about 50 of them marched around the base to protest Koizumi's visit. Among them was Hidenori Sasaki, a Lower House lawmaker for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
"I am demonstrating because the troop dispatch is a clear violation of our war-renouncing constitution. Japanese soldiers should never be sent into a war zone, where they might have to fire their weapons in anger," Sasaki said.
Inside the base, Koizumi sought to counter these criticisms by stressing the humanitarian nature of the mission. He told neat lines of armed troops in camouflage uniforms and green berets, "You are not going to war. You are not going to use military force or engage in combat." He added, "Your actions will help the Iraqi people, giving them the hope they need to rebuild their country." Near the end of his speech he said, "I pray from my heart that you will all return home safely."
Public Opinion Begins to Turn
His address was just one part of a 30-minute military ceremony, which repeatedly emphasized the twin objectives of a humanitarian mission and a safe return for the troops. In the final phase of the ceremony, some military personnel gave short speeches about how they intend to assist the Iraqis with everything from supplying water to providing medical and nursing care. Outside the base, opposition lawmaker Sasaki remained unconvinced by Koizumi's arguments: "In the past, the Self-Defense Forces have only been sent on peace-keeping operations like the 1993 Cambodia mission when they were under United Nations authority. In Iraq the situation is completely different. The country is under American military-occupation and in a state of war. France, Germany, Russia, China, none of these key UN countries are sending troops, so why is Japan?"
Ryoji Yamauchi, president of Asahikawa University, explained his own opposition in another way: "By sending troops to Iraq, Japan is losing something extremely precious. Since the end of World War II, no Japanese soldier has shot or killed any human being. That is something for Japan to be truly proud of and it's worth fighting to preserve."
Despite strong initial public opposition to the dispatch, since advance troops arrived in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah on January 19, opinion polls indicate that support for the policy is gradually rising. A recent Mainichi Shimbun survey showed both support and opposition for the dispatch exactly equal at 47 percent, while a Yomiuri Shimbun poll registered 53 percent in favor. Two earlier surveys by NHK broadcasting and the Kyodo News Service conducted prior to the initial dispatch both showed about 51 percent were against the troop deployment, while roughly 42 percent supported it. Opinion appears to be moving in Koizumi's direction.
This shift is also clearly noticeable in Asahikawa. Kumiko Fujiwara, a housewife, said: "Since the first troops arrived in Samawah, the number of people who are openly saying that they are against the deployment has definitely decreased, while those who support it have suddenly become pretty vocal."
Yamauchi explained the increasing support: "There are four basic reasons behind the increase in support. First, people think that now our troops are actually in Iraq we have to support them. Second, they feel that they have no choice but to support the policy as it is what [United States] President [George W] Bush wants and we need to keep the US-Japan alliance strong because of the threat from North Korea. Third, people genuinely feel that Japan should make some kind of contribution to the international reconstruction effort in Iraq. Fourth, since Koizumi became prime minister, Japan has become much more nationalistic, so it is easier to accept a resurgent militaristic policy."
Exploiting Sympathy Lifts Poll Numbers
Kunio Sasaki, an opposition DPJ member of the Asahikawa city assembly, offered another explanation: "Koizumi is attempting to exploit public sympathy for the troops and their families. By whipping up emotions, Koizumi is hoping to sidestep the reasons why we are dispatching the military and avoid the real arguments." He elaborates, "Playing on people's natural sympathy for the troops and their families, Koizumi is blurring the issues. Regrettably, this tactic is proving to be highly effective and more people are beginning to support the dispatch."
The departure ceremony focused media attention on more than 600 family members of Iraq-bound soldiers who attended the event. Near the very end of the proceedings, some of the troops on the main stage produced pictures of their families for the media to photograph. This moving gesture highlighted the human dimension of the mission, which is something the government and its supporters are anxious to promote.
In Asahikawa, some political groups have tried to generate support for the military by hanging up yellow handkerchiefs around the city to remind people of the troops in Iraq. Both NHK News and the influential Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper have reported on the yellow handkerchief movement. Like America's yellow ribbons, Asahikawa's yellow handkerchiefs are meant to symbolize people's desire for the safe return of the troops. However, despite good media coverage, families of service personnel and ordinary citizens have so far shown little interest in the idea.
Junichi Fujiwara, a college professor in the city, said: "There are no yellow handkerchiefs hanging outside ordinary people's houses in Asahikawa. The only ones you see are hanging from the windows of big companies, hotels and large stores which support the LDP. Ordinary people are not hanging them up." David Long, who lives near the military base, comments, "There were absolutely no yellow handkerchiefs in this neighborhood until last Thursday when they put a bunch up around the base for Koizumi's visit."
Hiroshi Sakamoto, a senior local government official, dismissed the entire movement, "You won't find any ordinary people carrying yellow handkerchiefs. They are for media consumption and are being supplied free by the LDP and its supporters." Keiko Yamauchi, a former Social Democratic Party lawmaker and Asahikawa resident said, "The yellow handkerchief movement is dominated by conservative and ultra-right organizations. It certainly has nothing to do with the families of service personnel or ordinary citizens and is an attempt by ultra-nationalists to hijack people's emotions for their own ends."
While yellow handkerchiefs have yet to catch on, this might change if Japanese troops sustained heavy casualties. A few hours after the Asahikawa ceremony ended, there was a horrific reminder of Iraq's deadly dangers. Two suicide-bombers murdered nearly 60 innocent people in two separate acts of mass slaughter in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.
Should Japanese troops fall victim to such an atrocity, it could derail the country's Iraq policy. Even though the government's current strategy of heavily emphasizing the humanitarian nature of the mission and promoting its emotive aspects has increased support for the dispatch, it leaves policymaking vulnerable to unpredictable swings in public opinion.
(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 3 February 2004, http://www.atimes.com, and is republished with permission.)
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