Will Japan's Troop Dispatch to Iraq Trigger Constitutional Revision?
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)
January 26, 2004 marks an historic day for Japan. For the first time in 59 years, heavily armed Japanese troops have been committed to an occupying mission on foreign soil without the consent of the international community. Since 1992, Japan's Self-Defense Forces have participated in a series of United Nations peace keeping missions, however, they have never been dispatched without the sanction of the UN. This is in part why Japan's miniscule military contribution to the US-led occupation of Iraq (1,000 soldiers or approximately one percent of the total international force in Iraq) is making headlines. The other main reason has to do with the question of whether this dispatch violates Japan's postwar "peace" constitution, in particular Chapter II, Article 9, which "forever renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes".
In abiding with this pledge, no Japanese "soldier" has fired a shot since the end of the Pacific War. However, the violent Iraqi context, which many argue is still in a state of war, is likely to change this reality. The special law enacted last July allowing for the SDF's operation in Iraq sanctions the use of arms for purposes of "self defense". Nevertheless, critics find it difficult to characterize Japan's use of lethal weaponry on foreign soil in the context of an occupation that was reached through aggression as self-defense. Instead, many (including the Asahi Shimbun) define this as "the use of force". This understanding is gaining salience now that the United States and the United Kingdom have admitted to the fact that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction at the time of the US-led invasion. In essence, the argument that this war was launched in the name of self-defense has lost its clout, placing the integrity of Japan's constitutional principles at stake.
While Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi would like to have his constituents and concerned states in Asia and the Middle East believe that his troops are on a "humanitarian mission" that will bring aid and reconstruction to Iraq, the Daily Yomiuri has reported that, "contrary to the government's wishes, Air Self-Defense Force planes sent to Iraq may end up ferrying military supplies (weapons and ammunition) to British and US troops rather than humanitarian supplies to Iraqi communities" (January 24, 2004)
Through this dispatch, Koizumi has also painstakingly tried to demonstrate, to the Japanese, the importance of transforming Japan into an ally that the US can rely upon. This has been framed in the context of a volatile North Korea, the "war on terrorism" and the desire to "stabilize" the Middle East. Unfortunately, the rationale breaks down when one considers the fact that North Korea has become more abrasive, the threat of terror more present, and the political, social, economic and security situation in the Middle East increasingly dismal ever since Japan committed soldiers to the occupation of Iraq. One day before Japanese troops were dispatched The Financial Times reported of an alleged plot to attack Japanese troops in Iraq (24 January). Two Japanese diplomats, Mr. Katsuhiko Oku and Mr. Masamori Inoue, have already died in Iraq in an armed ambush perpetrated by unknown assailants. Japan's image in the Middle East is deteriorating and its untainted historical record in terms of occupation in the region has now been erased. Through the Kyodo news agency, the Arab league has voiced criticism of Japanese troops in Iraq asking for their withdrawal (January 22, 2004). Although the mission has just begun, it is difficult to see how Japan's military presence will improve this outlook.
The final answer will come down to whether or not Japanese troops will be able to meet Iraqi expectations on the ground. There is a 70 percent unemployment rate in the city of Samawah (Muthanna Province) and locals are demanding jobs. The Japanese government has announced plans to help create up to 600 jobs through the UN Human Settlements Program and has pledged $5 billion over four years (2004-2007). According to Maki Sato, the Middle East project coordinator of the Japan International Volunteer Center, the Japanese government is "trying to offer whatever it can to residents" in hopes that they will accept the SDF's presence (Financial Times, 26 January 2004). However, if Japanese troops are busy flying supplies to US and British troops and simultaneously averting terrorist plots one wonders how it will manage to fulfill these expectations. It may be important to note that most Iraqis who hoped that the US would bring with them a better life in Iraq have been disappointed. In this context, it is also critical to point out the BBC report noting that the SDF has "no means to discuss their reconstruction policies with local municipal authorities" because the councils where Japan will conduct activities are not functioning (BBC, 24 January 2004). A Ground SDF official in Tokyo already admits that the GSDF is "in trouble" if it cannot communicate with community and tribal leaders (BBC, 24 January 2004). His worries are no doubt warranted. The greatest fear is that unmet expectations will lead to civil unrest against the Japanese. In such instances, how will the troops react? Will they put to use the shooting skills they are currently acquiring at a US military camp in Kuwait?
Which brings us to the critical question that the Asahi Shimbun and others opposed to the dispatch are worried about. Will Japanese troops be brought home if the situation in Iraq deteriorates into one that would require the SDF to violate the constitution, in other words "use force"? The January 27 editorial in the Asahi Shimbun says "yes". The editor argues that the rule of law in Japan upon which its democracy is built is more important than demonstrating to the US that Japan is a loyal ally, no questions asked. Koizumi and other politicians are ambiguous on the matter.
It is clear that a constitutional debate revolving around Article 9 has to take place in Japan. However, it would be highly objectionable and even dangerous if constitutional revision were presented as a fait accompli. For 57 years, Japan's renunciation of a resort to force has served as a guiding principle underpinning its commitment to world peace and security. The removal of this clause is an obvious objective of the Liberal Democratic Party, however, to do so as an outcome of an attack in Iraq would be equivalent to revision under the barrel of a gun. Certainly, this is not what most Japanese would want.