Prague, 19 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Japanese troops have not been exposed to a potential combat situation since the end of World War II, and Tokyo very much hopes its soldiers will not be drawn into conflict as they now begin deploying to Iraq.
But the auguries for Tokyo completing what it hopes will be a purely humanitarian mission without bloodshed are mixed.
An advance team of some 30 soldiers arrived in southeastern Iraq today from Kuwait. Their long-planned deployment comes just hours after a car bomb in Baghdad killed more than 20 people, mostly Iraqi civilians lined up outside the headquarters of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. That serves as a reminder that insurgents not only remain determined to target U.S. forces and anyone cooperating with them but retain the ability to do so.
Forty-six soldiers from coalition nations other than the U.S. have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq since Washington declared the end of major fighting on 1 May, while 16 have died in accidents and other noncombat situations.
So far, the region to which the Japanese are deploying -- around Samawa -- has been remarkably free of post-Hussein violence. There, unemployment, not the presence of foreign troops, is said to be the main source of discontent. Recent months have seen several violent protests by crowds demanding work in the town, where unemployment is reported to be well over 50 percent.
Japanese leaders have been very conscious of the risks they are taking in sending troops to Iraq, where any fatalities could bring severe political repercussions in Tokyo.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has repeatedly called the deployment necessary to show that his country is serious about contributing to world peace. He restated that message again in a speech to the Japanese Parliament earlier today.
"We cannot say we are contributing to the international community by giving only material assistance and not providing human assistance because it may be dangerous -- leaving it to other countries. Financial assistance and assistance by the Self-Defense Force [Japan's army is officially called the Ground Self-Defense Force] and other people are both necessary," Koizumi said.
The Japanese deployment in Samawa is expected to grow to a total of some 600 ground troops by late March and last from six months to a year. An additional 400 sailors and air force personnel are to operate in the Gulf region in support of the ground deployment.
The deployment comes as Koizumi's government -- which has strongly supported U.S. President George W. Bush over Iraq -- has pledged a total of $5 billion in reconstruction aid for Iraq. Tokyo has also said it will join other creditor nations in helping forgive a substantial but as yet undetermined part of Iraq's crippling foreign debt.
Japan has strong economic interests in the Gulf region, which is the source of some 90 percent of its oil imports. The country's foreign minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, recently told parliament that "if Iraq becomes a 'failed state' and a base for terrorist activities...it would become a large threat not only to the Middle East but the international community as a whole, including our community."
Still, Tokyo's decision to dispatch troops is reported to be seen by many Japanese as a violation of Japan's post-World War II constitution, which renounces the right to wage war. The constitution, prepared while Japan was under U.S. occupation, effectively restricts Japanese soldiers from engaging in combat operations and to using weapons only in self-defense.
Recent media polls show that opposition to the troop deployment has fallen modestly -- from 55 percent of respondents in December 2003, when the government approved the plan to dispatch the troops, to about 48 percent today.
In an effort to calm the domestic opposition, Koizumi has stressed that Japanese troops will not engage in policing or security operations but will help rebuild Iraq's infrastructure in "safe areas." He has said they "are not there to take part in a war."
Colonel Nasahisa Sato is commander of the advance team of Japanese soldiers that arrived in Iraq today. He said on 17 January that his troops will provide help with projects ranging from water purification to construction:
"[Our mission is] to support Iraqi people, by conducting [water] purification and water supply and medical support and construction support," Sato said.
But some critics in Japan have warned the lightly armed soldiers could be easy targets for insurgents, and it is unclear what effect a fatal attack on Japanese troops would have on domestic opinion. Some Japanese commentators have said it could strengthen resistance to the deployment and undermine the government. But others argue that any losses could raise public support for the Iraq mission by creating an emotional surge of patriotism.
In late November, two Japanese diplomats were killed in an ambush in northern Iraq. After their deaths, Tokyo said it would not be deterred by violence in Iraq. So far, all governments which have suffered military losses in Iraq have said that attacks have only strengthened their determination to stabilize the country.
News reports say the Japanese contingent will initially receive protection from a Dutch military contingent responsible for security in the area. The commander of the Dutch force, which numbers some 1,000 soldiers, said this week that his troops have suffered no casualties since deploying some six months ago.
"We cannot say we are contributing to the international community by giving only material assistance and not providing human assistance because it may be dangerous -- leaving it to other countries."
As the Japanese troops now come to Samawa, the mood in the town is reported to be one of high expectations.
Reuters reported yesterday that welcoming banners are strung across the street in the central marketplace. One in Arabic reads: "Along with our Japanese friends, we will help to rebuild this city." Another, in Japanese, reads: "Welcome to the Self-Defense Force."
Samawa Mayor Mohammed Ali Hassan told the news agency that many residents believe the Japanese arrival will create jobs and kickstart the local economy.
He said that "everybody is happy that the Japanese are coming here to fix everything." But he also cautioned that local hopes may be unrealistically high. He said: "I've heard rumors about the Japanese companies [hiring everybody], but I don't believe it -- although I wish it were true."
Japan's Foreign Minister Kawaguchi has tried to dampen some of the excessive expectations. She told a Japanese television network last week that "there is around 70 percent unemployment" in the Samawa region and that "to solve the employment through economic aid is impossible."