The SDF in Iraq: Why are they there?
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)
Are Japanese ready to die for their country? Are they willing to mobilize the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) for combat in order to secure their country's national interests and those of their allies? The United States has been urging Japan to remilitarize since the early 1950s and it is no secret that the U.S. would like to see Japan be more aggressive in pursuing U.S.-led security objectives around the world, particularly in Northeast Asia. Japan has reluctantly complied and its forces represent one of the best equipped in the world. However, the barriers to becoming a "normal" nation go far beyond criteria related to military hardware and naturally imply a revision of its pacific constitution, specifically of Article 9 banning the threat or use of force to settle international conflicts. More fundamentally, however, the willingness to mobilize for war will require a complete re-ordering of the national psyche, which remains strongly opposed to engaging in war.
News items and academic analyses contemplating Japan's emergence as a militarily active U.S. ally are becoming more visible as of late. This is related to Japan's recent dispatch of troops to Iraq outside of the U.N. mandate and in favor of a highly unpopular U.S. policy of occupation in Iraq. It is also reflective of Japan's active participation in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense program with the United States, which seeks to address the nuclear threat from North Korea. Opinion is divided as to whether or not the decision to send troops to Iraq was a result of U.S. pressure or an indication of a determined policy initiative that seeks to rid the Self-Defense Forces of its constitutional limitations. If constitutional revision were a policy goal of the Koizumi administration this represents a formidable task considering widespread opposition among the public and within the Diet against such an objective.
The core reason behind this resistance has less to do with fear of remilitarization and more to do with a pronounced unwillingness among Japanese to die for their country. More precisely, it has to do with the absence of a national mission that Japanese are supposed to be fighting for when they participate in international undertakings.
The March 2004 issue of the Chuo Koron asked two notable scholars, Tokyo University's Takashi Mikuriya and the director of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) Mr. Tetsuo Yamaori, to discuss the question of what it meant to "put your life on the line for your country". The critical issue of debate during the dialogue that took place between these two was whether or not Japanese SDF personnel felt prepared to sacrifice their lives for their leaders. Both Mikuriya and Yamaori concurred in their analysis that the government failed to answer the most pertinent question likely lingering in the minds of most SDF personnel sent to Iraq, which is if I do die, "what will I be dieing for?" On a more general level, marred by a militaristic past that has yet to be reckoned with, the Japanese populace is largely confused about how they should think about constructs such as "the nation." They are also unclear about how they should interpret the "Self-Defense Forces" and their role in society. The only tangible sense that the Japanese have about the SDF is that they are supposed to support the U.S. in defending their country and can serve as a concrete symbol of Japan's contribution to international "peace and security" beyond "checkbook diplomacy" by participating in peace keeping operations.
It is here where there is a stark contrast with the United States. Arguably, one of the most persuasive factors shaping American support for their war campaigns, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, is related to a highly constructed notion of what it means to be American. Values such as freedom, democracy and prosperity are reinforced at every opportunity to define America's identity and indeed its "mission." Repeated attempts are made at all levels, particularly by the leadership, to drive home the idea that U.S. soldiers represent these values and are fighting for them in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration's strategy to weather the crisis caused by what seems to be a systematic torturing of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison is based on isolating these crimes and characterizing their perpetrators as "a few bad apples." These soldiers have been cast in a mold that is by no means representative of the U.S. military as a whole and of the noble cause that it is said to be fighting for. Even if the prime motivation of some soldiers may be to simply put food on the table, their contribution to society is portrayed as a great service to the nation.
This message was repeated over the Memorial holiday this past weekend. The government and the media devoted considerable energy to glorifying the work of U.S. soldiers since World War II. As far as the official discourse in America is concerned, U.S. soldiers that die on the battlefield are heroes, perhaps even martyrs, who have died in defense of America and of the values that this country claims to represent. Unlike in Japan, where the life of a member of the SDF is hardly contemplated and never glorified, soldiers in the U.S. figure prominently when it comes to issues of identity and national purpose. Their task is even portrayed as a moral one confronting evil.
The reasons behind Japan's apparent apprehension, even rejection, of venerating the role of the soldier is historical and traces back to Japan's defeat in the Pacific War. The attitude of shame cast on the military has also been influenced by the heinous crimes the Imperial armed forces perpetrated during the Great East Asian War. More fundamentally, soldiers returning from the many fronts in Asia while Japan was under occupation were often stigmatized. Furthermore, the inability of the Japanese to come to terms with their nation's war crimes has condemned SDF personnel to the marginal position that they occupy within Japanese society today. As it stands, it is unthinkable for SDF troops to emerge as heroes at home.
Consequently, the SDF dispatch to Iraq has not been justified in terms of guaranteeing Japan's security and defending Japanese values. Instead, the SDF deployment has been defended on humanitarian grounds. Prime Minister Koizumi and senior officials at the Defense Agency have reinforced the importance of this mission on the grounds that it promotes development in Iraq and represents Japan's commitment to its alliance with the United States. I wonder whether SDF personnel consider these objectives worth dying for?