Japan in Iraq

The Fortress of Solitude

I’ve visited lots of Japanese castles, from Kumamoto in Kyushu to Matsumae in Hokkaido. Some sit atop hills, enjoying a commanding view of the surrounding area. Some are encircled by moats, or twisting roadways designed to thwart attacks. Most castles date to the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, or are modern concrete reconstructions of fortresses first built during those centuries. They typically sport elegant interiors, combining austerity with opulence, and outside the towering donjon barracks for the lord’s samurai retainers. I’m reminded of those castles when I read about Japan’s present-day fortified base, outside of Samawah, in Iraq. Far to the west of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” envisioned by Japanese imperialists in the 1930s, this is the first Japanese military base outside Japan since 1945, the first year of the U.S. occupation. It was constructed to please that former occupying power, and to abet its latest occupation. It may be more defensively aloof than the citadels in Edo or Osaka ever were; J. Sean Curtin, of Asia Times Online, likens it to Superman’s hideout, “The Fortress of Solitude.”

Samawah is a city of 120,000 in the south, midway between Basra and Baghdad on the Euphrates, taken by U.S. forces after fierce resistance in April 2003. The fortress, housing about 560 modern samurai, perches on a hilltop ten kilometers outside the city, surrounded by a moat and zigzagging roads. These are all “lined with concrete walls and sandbags to prevent vehicles approaching the base at high speeds.”

Curtin calls this “one of the most high-tech and expensive military camps ever constructed, one that includes a karaoke bar, massage parlor and gymnasium It may well be one of the most formidable military camps planet Earth has ever seen. And those given to hyperbole might say Iraq will not have witnessed the erection of such an extraordinary structure since King Nebuchadnezzar II began building the biblical Tower of Babel in what is now Babylon.”

Lacking the charm of the White Heron Castle in Himeji
, the Samawah bastion may hold greater historical significance. Its very existence represents a sea change in Japanese military thinking since 1946, when the Diet approved a new charter including the following article:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

An Unconstitutional Fortress

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution could hardly be more categorical. Japan renounces war, as a means to settle international disputes, no matter what happens. Even an unprovoked invasion would not allow the Japanese people to go to war, since such an attack would be a form of “international dispute.” The fundamental law of Japan, authored by American staffers in the U.S. occupation in 1946 and adopted without debate by the Diet, is as pacifistic a document as you’re likely to find among such charters. The German Constitution of 1949, also composed under U.S. occupation, includes Article 26, which imposes a “ban on preparing a war of aggression,” and declares that “Activities tending and undertaken with the intent to disturb peaceful relations between nations, especially to prepare for aggressive war, are unconstitutional.” But it doesn’t renounce the right to wage defensive war or war in principle. The blanket Japanese ban on the maintenance of military forces, like much else about Japan, is quite unique.

Not so unique is the penchant of the Japanese state to contradict or ignore its own laws in practice. (Article 14 makes men and women equal under the law, but that’s never translated into reality.) Japan most certainly does maintain land, sea and air forces. It spends only one percent of its GDP on military expenses, but that GDP is huge, and according to the CIA Tokyo’s military budget at over $42 billion per year exceeds those of Italy ($28 billion) and Germany ($35 billion), and approaches those of the U.K. ($43 billion) and France ($45 billion). Some consider Japan the fourth largest military spender in the world, after the U.S., Russia and China. Its “Self-Defense Forces” (Jieitai) number over 246,000, and are equipped with medium tanks, reconnaissance vehicles, armored personnel carriers, towed and self-propelled howitzers, mortars, single rocket and multiple rocket launchers, air defense guns, surface-to-surface missiles, antitank missiles, fixed-wing aircraft, attack helicopters, transport helicopters, diesel submarines, guided missile destroyers, frigates with helicopters, frigates, patrol and coastal combatants, mine warfare ships, amphibious ships, fighters, reconnaissance aircraft, airborne early warning aircraft, transport aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, air-to-air missiles, and air-defense control and warning units.

None of this has yet been deployed in a hostile battlefield, and the Japanese public would like to keep it that way. Many Japanese point out the obvious: the very existence of the SDF is unconstitutional. But the timid courts don’t want to hear the case, or insist that the SDF is a political rather than legal issue. Ever so slowly since the mid-1950s, prodded by Washington, factions within the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have sought to transform formally pacifistic Japan into a “normal nation” with a fully validated Army, Navy and Air Force. In the 1980s they supported military expenditures slightly exceeding the traditional one percent of GDP, in order to test the waters of public opinion. (There was an outcry.) They have supported prime ministers’ official visits to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the ashes of Japan’s war dead (including convicted war criminals) are interred, and the revision of school textbooks to downplay discussion of Japanese atrocities in the Second World War. They have successfully promoted the use of the Kimi ga yo imperial anthem in schools, and the mandatory display of the solar disk flag. Their campaign for “normal” militarism is thus simultaneously a campaign for normal nationalism. But many Japanese see in both the ugly shadow of the fascist past.

The law authorizing Japanese troops’ presence overseas was passed after Tokyo received much U.S. criticism for its behavior during the Gulf War of 1991. The first President Bush asked Japan for troops for that war, but Article 9 and popular opinion made this impossible, so Tokyo simply forked over $ 13 billion to finance the U.S. effort. Since then Japan has overtaken the U.S. as the number one donor of foreign aid to “developing” nations, taking over that role as part of the global inter-imperialist division of labor. Washington has been happy enough with such contributions, but some in the LDP depict Japan’s “checkbook diplomacy” as a matter of national embarrassment. Their exploitation of Japanese sensitivity to collective shame has been an intelligent strategy to gain public support for changes in the law governing the SDF. In 1992 the Diet, as if to indicate that Japan was willing to actually put lives on the line to enforce the New World Order, passed a law subsequently used to allow troop deployments in Cambodia, East Timor and Mozambique. In October 2001 the Diet approved a Japanese military role in the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. A dispatch to Iraq at American behest was simply the next logical step. In 2003 the Diet approved the assignment of SDF to Iraq, but only to provide such services as water purification and delivery, road repair, reconstruction and medical services.

Where to send them, in war-torn Iraq? Samawah was chosen because it was one of the few towns outside the Kurdish zone where “a foreigner can still venture out and eat at a restaurant.” The area was patrolled by Dutch troops who, given the limited assignment of the Japanese, would have to provide them security. So since the SDF troops arrived in February 2004, they’ve been accompanied by heavily armed Dutch convoys on every excursion outside the castle. The non-combat designation notwithstanding, last May a Dutch sergeant was killed by the resistance on a nearby Euphrates bridge crossing, another has been killed in Samawah since, and the base has taken fire, so the supposedly safe, humanitarian mission has sparked much controversy in Japan. Koizumi himself recently called the situation “severe,” however adding “Samawah is not a combat zone at present, and it will continue to be a non-combat zone.”


An Unpopular Fortress

The prime minister stated this as he announced that the Samawah mission would be extended one year from its scheduled termination December 14, declaring in effect that the area will be by definition a “non-combat zone” simply because were this not the case, Japanese troops couldn’t legally be there. If Tokyo can deny that the Japanese military is a military, surely it can argue that a combat zone isn’t a combat zone. Koizumi wants to anyway, just to keep it all legal. He wants to play the role of the loyal U.S. ally without paying too heavy a price domestically. But separate public opinion polls taken this month, by Mainichi Shinbun and NHK, indicate that 62% of the population oppose the Iraq mission, and Koizumi’s personal approval rating is at an all-time low since his election in April 2001: 37%, mostly because of this issue. And so far no Japanese troops (as opposed to a tourist and some diplomats) have even been killed.

Koizumi argues, as have all postwar Japanese prime ministers before him, that Japan must maintain its close alliance with the U.S. At present, this means it must cater to Bush’s demand that U.S. allies append a fig leaf to American unilateralism, and play along with the charade that a broad international Coalition is democratizing Iraq. Had Tokyo like Canada or Mexico politely declined to either endorse the invasion or assist in the occupation—had it opted to really become the “Japan that can say ‘no'” to the U.S.—there could have been repercussions. Among other things, the Bush administration might have excluded Tokyo from the planning process for regime change in nations in whose future Japan has deep interests, such as Iran and North Korea.

In Iran, Japanese policy clashes with that of Washington. Tokyo has cordial relations with Tehran, and Tehran sells more oil to Japan than to any other country. Tokyo has rejected Washington’s protests about a $ 3 billion Japanese loan to Iran to develop its Azadegan oil field. Japan supports European efforts to negotiate with Iran the suspension of its uranium enrichment program—efforts which irritate the neocons in Washington who seek a pretext for aggression against Iran. In North Korea, U.S. and Japanese interests more generally correspond, although some in Tokyo surely worry that the saber-rattling American administration will do something really stupid in their own backyard, and so seek to exercise a restraining influence.

The South Korean government of Roh Moo-hyun has prostituted itself with an Iraq deployment, 3600 strong, hoping that Washington will, in appreciation, not attack North Korea, ruining the “sunshine diplomacy” results the South has obtained to date and throwing the whole region into turmoil. Koizumi may share that concern, but the hard line towards North Korea promoted by John Bolton and the other neocons dovetails with the position favored by some LDP leaders, including rightwing firebrand Ishihara Shintaro. Tokyo’s popular mayor has actually asked recently, “why shouldn’t Japan stand up to [North Korea] and go to war?

Tokyo has recently, with much fanfare, revised its defense posture, defining three “threats” to the nation: North Korea, China, and international terrorism. It looks poised to clamp sanctions on North Korea, in protest of Pyongyang’s admitted abduction of Japanese civilians for espionage purposes. North Korea says it will regard sanctions as a declaration of war.

“The sound of the Gion Temple bells echoes the impermanence of all things.” So wrote the unknown author of the samurai epic Heike Monogatari, as he opened his account of events in turbulent twelfth-century Japan, when a new order based on new rules toppled the old system. He referred to the Buddhist law of mujo: everything in the cosmos is subject to change and decline. Much is changing rapidly in Bush’s brave new world, and Japan’s “sincere” renunciation of war, constitutionally intended to be “forever,” is no exception. The sturdy defenses of the Samawah fortress project the truth that Japan remains an imperialist country. But Koizumi’s declining poll numbers affirm the truth that the Japanese people want peace, and reject the pressure from Washington to endorse Bush’s empire-building agenda. The subservient alliance with the U.S. is also subject to mujo, and will end “like a dream on a spring night”—whenever the Japanese people organize to effect its fated fall.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu