Global Policy Forum

Japan Troops in Iraq Keep Heads (and Guns) Down


Norimitsu Onishi

International Herald Tribune
October 6, 2004

Whenever a Japanese convoy leaves its base here in southern Iraq, so spotless are the armored vehicles that they appear to have just rolled off a Tokyo car showroom into this crumbling Shiite town on the Euphrates River. . They lack the dents and dirt of other countries' vehicles, perhaps because of the Japanese attention to maintenance or, as the Iraqis here say, their increasing tendency to stay inside their base as the violence rises outside. . Seven months into Japan's first mission since the end of World War II into a country with ongoing fighting, its ground troops have succeeded in not firing a single shot.

. Though of little military significance, Japan's contingent of about 550 troops has provided the Bush administration with diplomatic support and laid the groundwork for Japan's own transformation. . The mission in Iraq is providing a decisive push to changes under way in Japan, including the revision of its peace constitution and the change of its so-called Self-Defense Forces into a real military. . For the first time at a United Nations General Assembly session, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently used Japan's mission to Iraq to argue for a permanent Security Council seat. . Risks remain. . A single death here could turn opinion in Japan against the mission. In this country, officials and other Iraqis express growing disappointment at Japan's reconstruction efforts.

. As the gap between local expectations and Japan's relatively modest projects widens, disappointment could turn into hostility. . At his office, surrounded by 18 tribal leaders who complained that they lacked electricity to irrigate their farmlands, the governor of Muthania province, Mohammed Ali Hassan, said he had sent letters of complaint to Koizumi. . "Regarding the things that have been produced, I am not satisfied," the governor said of the Japanese projects. . "That is what pushed me to say that we cannot stand this situation any longer." . Samawah's police chief, Karim al-Zayad, said in an interview, "We are waiting for big projects from the Japanese. . "What they have done is not an answer to our problems. . "It does not express Japan's economic might."

. So far, Iraqi contractors hired by the Japanese have finished rehabilitating four schools and two roads and have laid grass at the soccer stadium. Japanese medical advisers regularly visit four area hospitals. Their main activity consists of pumping water from a canal and purifying it with nine machines inside their base. City water trucks then deliver the water, enough to provide 10,500 locals with about 3 gallons, or 10 liters, every day. . Colonel Goro Matsumura, the Japanese commander, said in an interview that his troops were planning to repair seven more schools and seven more roads, as well as a gymnasium. . "The support that Japan provides is extremely careful, and the workmanship is very good," Matsumura said. "That's the reputation we have with the local population."

. Although the overall insecurity in Iraq has halted reconstruction projects by the Americans and others, Matsumura said that it had not affected Japanese plans. "The present situation is within the realm of what we had envisioned at the beginning," he said. . Japan's plans, however, were always exceeded by local expectations. . "When we heard the Japanese were coming," said Mohammed Abdul Hadi, 28, owner of an electronics shop along the Euphrates, "we believed the gates of paradise had opened to us. We dreamed of big projects that would transform Samawah into a luxurious Gulf city. . "We know that Japan is a technologically advanced country, matching America. But what they have done so far, any Iraqi contractor could do."

. Even Iraqis who call such dreams unrealistic are hoping that Japan will bring fundamental changes. . At the General Hospital, Dr. Hassan al-Daghir, 51, a general surgeon, said he expected Japan to build a new power station, a water treatment facility and sewage system for the whole city. . At the Samawah Secondary School for Girls, recently renovated by the Japanese, Nahla Abdul Ridha, 51, a chemistry teacher, said, "The school is now beautiful. But we have not seen anything significant in the rest of the city. We wanted to get some of the Japanese technology so that our children would feel proud about living here."

. For Tokyo, the mission here is much more about increasing its international standing. . During the first Gulf War in 1991, Japan was widely derided in the United States for contributing only money to the coalition. So last year, Japan passed a special law allowing its troops to be deployed to Iraq in a non-combat role.

. The Japanese chose Samawah, in a Shiite province long neglected by the government of Saddam Hussein. Because of the strength of its tribal networks, the province remains one of the most peaceful in Iraq. Samawah, a small town of dilapidated buildings and neighborhoods with open sewers, remains one of the few places outside the Kurdish north where a foreigner can still venture to eat out at a restaurant. . In recent months, though, insurgents have launched several mortar attacks against the Japanese base, as well a Dutch base here; two Dutch soldiers have been killed. . "The Japanese government has chosen this very public way to help Iraq so as to show Japan's face," Matsumura said. . By doing so, he added, the mission would show that "Japan, as a country, will not only give money toward reconstruction and humanitarian work, but that Japanese will also work and sweat to help stabilize an unstable region of the world."

. The mission has clearly pleased President George W. Bush, who has frequently mentioned Japan and Koizumi in his speeches on Iraq. But with the growing discontent over the Japanese reconstruction efforts, the local perception of the Japanese troops has begun changing. That was underscored by the recent spread of the unfounded rumor that the Japanese are building secret bases for the Americans. . In an interview, Ghazi al-Zargani, 34, the local representative of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, said Sadr's organization had regarded the Japanese troops in a positive light because "Japan was also occupied by the United States and suffered devastation in Hiroshima." . "But," he added, "since they have done little to help the people here, we are now reexamining whether they are a humanitarian or military force."


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