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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #101: July 8, 2003

The SDF in Iraq: Global Reaction

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM)

The Japanese government's passage of the special measures bill to dispatch Self Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq in the Lower House last week grabbed a considerable amount of attention in Japanese and foreign news sources. Coverage was wide not only in Asia but also in Britain and in the US. The dominant reaction among all was an understanding that there was a "growing willingness in Japan to use its military" (Ken Moritsugu, Knight Ridder Newspapers, July 5). The BBC rang a historical note calling the measure the "largest foreign deployment for Japan's armed forces since World War II" (July 6). According to analysts, the Bush administration values this as a signal that Japan will "become an active partner in military affairs". These included Johns Hopkins University Professor Kent Calder who characterized the passing of this law as "an important step on the road to ‘normalization' of Japan's global geo-strategic role" (Ken Moritsugu). In Asia, the response was measured, yet not as critical as anticipated. According to Japanese news sources, the Japanese government had arrived at an understanding with both South Korean and Chinese representatives prior to the bills passage (Yomiuri, Asahi 6 July). Certainly, Prime Minister Koizumi must be pleased. However, considering the job ahead he should be worried.

Besides the historical significance of this dispatch, media reaction was littered with concerns related to every aspect of the mission that these troops may or may not undertake. After reporting that the bill had passed, the Asahi Shimbun placed doubts on every aspect of the plan by stating that, "a few questions remain unanswered about the troop's mission: what, where, why and how?" Noting that the bill restricted Japanese forces to "non-combat zones", the BBC wondered whether Japanese troops would be drawn into combat considering the that the rule of law is absent in almost all areas of Iraq. Upon recognizing the importance of this bill, Prof. Kent Calder put into doubt Japan's reliability as an ally in Iraq by saying that, "it remains unclear whether Japan can grow into a full-fledged military ally able to take on overseas military roles, like Great Britain or Australia". His point was that, under the prevailing circumstances, US troops may be reluctant to entrust their lives in Japanese hands.

More fundamental concerns were raised by AP's Gary Schaefer who wondered whether the passage of this law would give the "seal of approval [to] an unjustified war" (July 5). Most Japanese continue to be against the US-UK led invasion/occupation of Iraq. Moreover, unable to find any Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq, the legitimacy of this operation has come under increasing scrutiny. In this context, most Japanese explain that their government is doing this to please the US and not in the name of a peaceful and prosperous Iraq. More often than not, the bill is justified in the name of strengthening the US-Japan alliance, in particular vis-a-vis North Korea.

The risks being taken by Koizumi in sending the SDF to an incredibly volatile Iraq are tremendous. There is a high likelihood that Japanese troops will be forced to defend themselves against hostile "elements". With the SDF's right to use arms still undefined, casualties are a definite possibility. Once there, no matter what the situation, withdrawing will not be an option. With a four year expiration date on the bill, Japanese troops could be facing hostility for a long time.

In the name of strengthening the US-Japan partnership, Koizumi and his compatriots have decided to embark on a long and dangerous journey that is not viewed by all as legitimate. Their decision has clearly been shadowed by the ghost of Japan's experience following the 1991 Gulf War when it was accused of ‘check-book diplomacy'. In this case, however, this analogy is not entirely appropriate. Conspicuously the UN, Arab states and most of Europe is absent from playing any major role in occupied Iraq. By declining to send troops, Japan could hardly be accused of conducting check-book diplomacy, despite the fact that it may end up financing up to one-fifth of all Iraqi reconstruction costs. With British and US governments increasingly under fire for having "exaggerated" and "sexed up" intelligence reports concerning Iraq's WMD, the invasion/occupation is being increasingly described in aggressive and colonial terms. Furthermore, with the plight of the Iraqi people not getting any better, in some cases worsening, Japan's military presence in Iraq could become another symbol of colonialism to the Iraqi people and their sympathizers.

Japanese non-governmental organizations (NGO) already in Iraq are also concerned. They think an SDF role in Iraq will place them in harms way. One Japanese NGO worker in Iraq was quoted by Kyodo news as saying that, "we will lose the Iraqi people's support if they see the SDF working in cooperation with US forces" and promised to withdraw if that came to bear (Shinya Ajima, Kyodo, 5 July).

The passage of this special measures bill in the Upper House is said to be nothing more than a formality (expected 23 July). Following this, a number of planning missions meant to evaluate the what, where, why and how of this dispatch will take place. The responsibility on the shoulders of Prime Minister Koizumi and the members of these missions will be great, as it should be considering that, at minimum, thousands of human lives are at stake.

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