Search Asia Times

Advanced Search


Japan, slumbering military giant, stirs
By Oscar Johnson

TOKYO - As expected, Japan's cabinet extended the deployment of up to 600 troops in Iraq for another year, though they are largely sequestered in their high-tech desert fortress. This move was billed as unflinching support for its ally the United States and a helping hand to war-torn Iraq. A new defense policy unfurled the following day, however, showed that after a half-century, Tokyo's military and global aspirations, like a once-slumbering giant, may just be starting to stir.

The cabinet, in endorsing the new five-year defense policy, also cracked the door open just a bit, lifting a decades-old arms-export ban, citing as justification an "immediate" need for a joint missile-defense system with the United States. Only certain exports to the US will be allowed - the general ban was not lifted. And for the first time, the defense-policy outline singled out other nations as security concerns - understandably North Korea, but also China.

To fend off a ballistic attack, Japan has been working with the United States since 1999 on a new missile-defense system. To facilitate developing and deploying the system, which includes Aegis-equipped destroyers and surface-to-air advanced US Patriot missiles, a self-imposed weapons-export ban will be eased to allow related sales - only to the United States.

The revised special law extended a December 14 deadline on Japan's largest overseas military operation since World War II. The initial law was drafted so that the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) could skirt provisions of the nation's war-renouncing constitution in order to provide humanitarian assistance in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah. It is valid as long as the area remains a non-combat zone.

With subsequent approval the next day, however, of the more far-reaching National Defense Program Outline, such special legislation - deployment extension by the cabinet - was made obsolete, and then some. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's cabinet gave the state authorization to dispatch SDF troops anywhere from East Asia to the Middle East for national "security".

Maintaining that "Samawah is not a combat zone", Koizumi told the nation in a televised statement that "we must not give into terror". He insisted that for Iraq to be rebuilt, "the Self-Defense Forces are needed". He also later warned that for the "future of our neighboring areas, we have to keep supporting the United States when it faces hardship in Iraq".

The prime minister has spent a wealth of political capital on arguing that the Samawah area is a non-combat zone in response to the opposition within the government and what media polls say is nearly two-thirds of the public, with a history of post-World War II pacifism, disapproving of the deployment. While "combat zone" remains ill-defined by the cabinet, that Samawah is not one has become increasingly hard to sell.

Since Japan's troops first scurried for cover when three mortar shells exploded outside their camp in early April, the warning shots have continued. So far, there have been no casualties. But the warnings are ringing louder. The seventh came in October as a defused rocket breached the compound parameter - a day after the US-flag-draped body of a decapitated Japanese citizen turned up in Baghdad. Most recently, it was the bombing of a nearby shop just hours after Defense Agency chief Yoshinori Ono scuttled through for a very brief show of Samawah "stability" on December 5. With the Dutch troops responsible for security in the area pulling out in April, Tokyo reportedly got word from Britain that its troops would take over the job. But the SDF may have to do what a Dutch official visiting Tokyo in November suggested: fend for themselves.

With neither a mandate for nor experience in combat, the lightly armed Self-Defense Forces' work in Iraq has been hampered. Several times in the past year troops have holed up in their base camp for safety. Reports of completed projects include purifying several tons of drinking water and training and employing a few hundred Iraqis to rebuild schools and other facilities. But such reports, like those of local Iraqis frustrated over too few projects, have been sketchy. Citing security reasons, the Defense Agency imposed a news "brownout" on the mission, reinforcing the local media's tendency to take state press briefings at face value. That has generated criticism, even from some in Koizumi's own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and a call to write off the deployment as an unnecessary risk of troops' lives for what they call the unabashed kowtowing to Washington.

"They went there claiming that they will contribute to reconstruction, but they have hardly been able to get the work done," lawmaker Koichi Kato told the New York Times last month. "There is no reason for them to be there ... The good image that took Japan 60-100 years to build in the Arab world has crumbled over the past year or so."

If keeping Japan's troops in Iraq is more about winning favors from Washington than reconstruction as Koizumi critics suggest, then the quid pro quo is elusive. The initial deployment of troops from the world's No 2 economic power was a welcome, albeit symbolic, addition to Washington's "coalition of the willing". Nearly two years into the conflict, however, major identifiable reconstruction, effective elections and a timely military withdrawal have not taken place. George W Bush's administration will be hard pressed to appreciate fully what remains mere symbolic deployment by Japan, said Ed Lincoln, an analyst for the Washington, DC-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"I have attended many discussions of Iraq policy in Washington over the past several years," Lincoln said. "Not once has the word 'Japan' been uttered in these discussions, which is an indication of just how irrelevant the Japanese are for what is occurring in Iraq."

Lincoln argued that if Tokyo's rationale for sending troops to Iraq is to win favor from the United States, it is an "invalid" one. He pointed out that Washington was already concerned about the North Korean nuclear issue, continues to snub Japan's pleas to be more flexible in negotiating with the reclusive state and, while showing tacit support, has done "nothing to support the Japanese on their favorite issue - the abductees [Japanese citizens captured and held by North Korea over the years] and their families".

If toeing the Bush line on the "terror war" does not provide an adequate motive for redefining Japan's military role in the world, then it may at least offer sufficient justification for it.

Japan's latest defense outline stipulates that the SDF must rise to the challenge of two new threats - ballistic missiles and terrorism. Previous outlines were diplomatically vague in spelling out the minimum needed to fend off unnamed invaders during and immediately after the Cold War. They implied that defense should be limited to safeguarding Japan's borders, and that's how most Japanese had understood the previous policies.

The 2004 outline, however, states that North Korea's military activities pose "an important factor for instability". It also notes that "there is a need to pay attention to future trends" in China with regard to the advancement of its military and its aggressive maritime activities - an obvious swipe at a nuclear submarine and other vessels that have recently violated Japan's maritime boundaries.

It describes all of East Asia as "an extremely important region for our security". And it calls for proactive military actions to "improve the international security environment and to ensure that threats do not reach our nation". The days of hunkering down out of harm's way, awaiting a chance to rebuild schools in Iraq, appear to be numbered for Japan's Self-Defense Forces.

Defense chief Ono announced plans to submit to the Diet (parliament) in January proposed legislative changes that would give the military new and more muscular mandates, including expediting responses to a missile attack. Japan's current system for attack responses, for example, would take much longer than the 10 minutes needed for a North Korean missile to reach its shores after a launch is detected. Speeding up the process raises the thorny issue of what, and how, civilian branches of government will remain in the decision-making loop. Not giving the military carte blanche in assessing and responding to perceived attacks is of paramount importance to the Japanese public, not to mention neighboring nations, given Japan's wartime militarism, invasions, occupations and brutality.

Since 1999, Japan and the US have been working on joint development of a new missile-defense system, and many observers consider it a response to the threat from North Korea. To facilitate building and deploying the system, including Aegis-equipped destroyers and surface-to-air missiles, Japan's time-honored and self-imposed ban on sale of weapons will be relaxed; now missile-defense-related sales will be permitted, but only to the US.

What the outline did not say about hotly disputed missile defense, however, and the arms- and weapons-technology ban is perhaps more telling. Hawkish LDP members had pushed plans to research long-range precision missiles under the guise of the defense system. The party's junior coalition partner, New Komeito, however, shot that down just days before the defense outline was signed. Proponents had said the 300-kilometer-range missiles would only have been intended and used to defend Japan's distant islands, but critics balked that they would also allow targeting of enemy bases, counter to Japan's waning defense-only policy.

The domestic defense industry has been lobbying the LDP long and hard to allow exports of any weapons and related technology to most nations. The senior coalition party had advocated letting companies develop and sell such "defensive" equipment as night-vision goggles and flak jackets, at which New Komeito also balked.

At least one equipment supplier that has long been at the beck and call of a single, albeit generous, customer - the Japanese government - sees light at the end of the tunnel. For ShinMaywa Industries Ltd, which has supplied the Self-Defense Forces with US-1A amphibian search-and-rescue planes since 1974, the world is its oyster. While the government decreed the unarmed aircraft to be exempt from the arms ban in 1975, ShinMaywa has refrained from marketing them internationally because of state sentiments favoring the principle of the arms ban. But times have changed. The company is now mulling over inquiries from Britain, France and Greece as well as the United States.

If the weapons-export ban will continue to apply to other non-combat technologies that might be used as weapons or in combat, such as night-vision goggles, only time will tell. Its easing, however, will placate local industry heavies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. It helped research and develop a special detachable nose cone for the joint-defense system's interceptor missiles but it was barred from the real bread and butter - manufacturing them, according to the daily Asahi Shimbun. That is, until Japan's new defense outline made an exception to the export ban for its missile-defense program with the United States.

Oscar Johnson is a freelance writer in Tokyo.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

Dec 14, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

Of Japanese strawberries and soldiers
(Dec 11, '04)

Key panel would shoot down Japan's pacifism
(Oct 14, '04)

Tokyo, Seoul and the nuclear card
(Oct 7, '04)

Japan eyes eased export on arms exports
(Aug 4, '04)

Refurbishing the 'USS Japan'
(Jun 22, '04)

Japan's new, tougher foreign policy (Jun 18, '04)

Japan's new army to rescue US forces? (Apr 3, '04)

Japan 'Peace Constitution' debate heats up
(Jan 8, '04)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong