Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - After wrestling with the issue for months, the Japanese government has shrugged off strong political and public opposition by approving the deployment of troops to help rebuild Iraq.
The mission is the biggest of its kind since the end of World War II, when the U.S. drafted a new constitution for the newly defeated Japan, renouncing the use of military force.
The decision comes just 10 days after terrorists shot dead two Japanese diplomats in Iraq, adding weight to concerns held by many in Japan about the risks of sending soldiers into an environment where the U.S. and its allies have been increasingly targeted.
But Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pressed ahead, saying during a televised press conference that Japan had a responsibility to help rebuild Iraq.
He urged the Japanese to accept the challenge of helping Iraq, "not just with words but with deeds," and with manpower, not only with financial aid.
At a recent conference in Madrid, Japan pledged $5 billion over four years for Iraq's reconstruction. Washington has been pressing for a hands-on contribution as well.
In a decision warmly welcomed by the U.S., Japan said it would send about 600 Self-Defense Forces (SDF) members to southeastern Iraq for up to one year, for humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, including the provision of potable water supplies, medical and educational services.
Military transport planes will be deployed to airlift humanitarian supplies into Iraq, and several ships would be sent to transport the personnel and equipment.
Because of the constitutional restrictions, the government stressed that the troops would only be deployed in "non-combat" zones.
Nonetheless, the soldiers will be heavily armed, carrying handguns, automatic rifles, machine guns and anti-tank rocket launchers. Use of weapons by SDF personnel is strictly limited to self-defense by the constitution.
Iraq's southeastern corner has been more stable than parts of the country further north, especially the "Sunni triangle" - the diplomats were killed near Tikrit - but at a meeting of lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), several questioned how the government would differentiate between "combat" and "non-combat" zones.
Koizumi himself admitted there was no "completely safe" place in Iraq.
Commentators said the prime minister is taking a considerable political risk.
If Japan suffers serious losses in Iraq, political commentator Hisayuki Miyake was quoted as saying Wednesday, the government could collapse.
Recent opinion polls indicate that while a majority of Japanese support the troops dispatch in principle, fewer than 20 percent believe they should be sent now.
The official opposition Democratic Party, which made important gains at the LDP's expense in parliamentary elections last month, is also firmly opposed to the deployment.
Robert Patman, associate professor at the department of political studies at New Zealand's University of Otago, saw possible similarities between Koizumi's position and that of the British and Australian prime ministers, Tony Blair and John Howard.
Both supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq despite considerable domestic opposition, and were now having difficulties sustaining their levels of support - especially in the case of Blair, he said Wednesday.
"He [Koizumi] has decided overall that the national interest of Japan lies in supporting the U.S. in this difficult effort, but he must be aware of the potential political price that could be paid. It's clearly a calculated risk."
Patman agreed, however, that the decision could benefit Koizumi politically.
"The possible positive outcome of this is that if Japan does not sustain major casualties, then he will have demonstrated that he's not afraid to take tough decisions in sensitive areas.
"Political leadership is not just about following public opinion - it is sometimes having a willingness to lead it."
Patman said the Japanese decision was important for the U.S. and the coalition, saying it was "something of a triumph for U.S. persistence."
"It will be a boost for the Bush Administration, and help to extend the process of internationalizing the post-war reconstruction effort."
Japanese participation would also help support Washington's contention - in the face of "enormous international skepticism" - that the Iraq situation was the central front in the war against terrorism.
More assertive role
Patman said the decision to deploy should also be seen in the context of Japan's gradual edging away from the pacifist constitution.
He recalled that Japan came under criticism for not sending forces to support the 1991 Gulf War, although it did back the coalition effort financially.
After the Gulf War, Japan sent forces overseas for the first time since 1945, deploying first minesweepers to the Persian Gulf, and subsequently peacekeepers to Cambodia, East Timor and elsewhere.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Tokyo sent ships to the Indian Ocean in support of the campaign against terror.
It recently joined the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which envisages stopping and searching ships suspected to be carrying weapons of mass destruction, and four months ago, Japanese lawmakers passed the legislation permitting the dispatch of SDF troops to Iraq.
Last September, Koizumi said he wanted to amend the constitution to call the 240,000-strong SDF a military.
Analysts say Japan's inching towards a more robust military role has been spurred on by the perception of a growing threat posed by North Korea.
See earlier story:
Japanese PM Pushing to Amend Pacifist Constitution (Sept. 19, 2003)
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