October 6, 2004
Japan's Troops Proceed in Iraq Without Shot Fired
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
SAMAWA, Iraq, Sept. 30 - Whenever a Japanese convoy leaves its base here in southern Iraq, the armored vehicles are so spotless that they appear to have just rolled out of a Tokyo car showroom into this crumbling Shiite Muslim town on the Euphrates.
They lack the dents and dirt of other nations' vehicles. Perhaps that is because of the Japanese troops' attention to maintenance or perhaps, as the Iraqis here say, their increasing tendency to stay inside their base with the violence rising outside.
Seven months into Japan's first mission since the end of World War II into a country with active fighting, its ground troops have succeeded in not firing a single shot. Though of little military significance, Japan's small 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 postwar, American-imposed Constitution, which renounces war, and the transformation of its 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.
For their deployment, the Japanese commanders chose Samawa, in a Shiite province long neglected by the government of Saddam Hussein. Because of the strength of its tribal networks, Muthanna Province remains one of the most peaceful in Iraq. Samawa, 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.
Still, there are risks. In recent months insurgents have launched several mortar attacks against the Japanese base, as well a Dutch base here. Two Dutch soldiers have been killed. A single Japanese death could turn opinion in Japan against the mission. Earlier this year, Japan's government criticized several Japanese civilians who had been taken hostage for complicating their country's finely calibrated role in Iraq.
Here, officials and ordinary 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. Surrounded in his office by 18 tribal leaders who complained that they lacked the electricity needed to irrigate their farmlands, the governor of Muthanna, Muhammad Ali Hassan, said he had sent complaint letters to Prime Minister Koizumi.
"Regarding the things that have been produced, I am not satisfied," the governor said. "That is what pushed me to say that we cannot stand this situation any longer."
Samawa's police chief, Karim al-Zayad, said: "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, Japanese-hired Iraqi contractors finished rehabilitating four schools and two roads, and laid grass at a soccer stadium. Japanese medical advisers regularly visit four local hospitals. The Japanese troops' 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 people about three gallons a day each.
Col. 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," Colonel 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, Colonel Matsumura said it had not affected Japanese plans.
Japan's plans, though, were always exceeded by local expectations.
"When we heard the Japanese were coming," said Muhammad 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 Samawa 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 here, Dr. Hassan al-Daghir, 51, a general surgeon, said he expected Japan to build a new power station, a water treatment plant and a sewage system for the whole city.
At the Samawa 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 is much more about increasing its international standing. During the Persian Gulf war of 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 noncombat role.
"The Japanese government has chosen this very public way to help Iraq so as to show Japan's face," Colonel 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 pleased President Bush, who has frequently mentioned Japan and Mr. 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, as underscored by the recent spread of the unfounded rumor that the Japanese are building secret bases for the Americans.
Ahmed Jawad, 28, owner of the Madina al Munawara electronics shop, said: "The Japanese said they came here for humanitarian work, but where are the big projects? The truth is that they are helping the Americans occupy Iraq."
In an interview, Ghazi al-Zargani, 34, the local representative of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose followers have staged uprisings against American forces, said Mr. 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 re-examining whether they are a humanitarian or military force."
The Japanese have taken ads on television and in newspapers to underscore the noncombat nature of the Japanese troops. They have been extremely cautious about being associated with the American-led military campaign, avoiding, for instance, being seen in public with other countries' forces.
Outside Iraq, Tokyo has been strengthening its military ties with Washington. It has committed itself to the United States ballistic missile defense shield and, in jointly developing and producing parts for the system, is likely to overturn a longstanding ban on arms exports.
In a further shift away from pacifism, there is growing consensus inside Japan to revise its peace Constitution, including Article Nine renouncing war, and its Self-Defense Forces. Mr. Koizumi has said he wants the forces to be recognized as a real military, and the United States, which wants Japan to carry a greater share of America's military responsibilities, has urged Tokyo on. In August, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Japan would be unable to fulfill the role of a permanent member of the Security Council unless it revised Article Nine.
"It's understandable that the Japanese have to take care of their ties with the United States by sending a small force here to tell the American government, 'We are with you,' '' said Naji Jabbar Kashi, 49, a philosophy professor at the Muthanna College of Education and a playwright. "But I hope the Japanese won't forget us. They rarely leave their base nowadays. We don't see them very much. Did you see the open gutter outside my home? The Japanese forces need to do something big, so that they will be remembered long after they leave here. They could build a power plant, or sewage system or maybe even a subway."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
That is a very interesting article. I bet in short time Japan will become more "militaristic". At this poing though, that is like saying a chihuahua is getting into dog fighting lol.
The Japanese know a little about head chopping too.
We need to let the japs go Nanking on their ass.