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Nowhere are the stakes higher, or the issue more controversial, than in Japan, which is still mindful of the runaway militarism that led to its entry into World War II. Until recently, Japan's almost radical pacifism was a point of cultural pride.
The Iraq mission, the first time Japanese soldiers have been sent abroad without a U.N. sanction, carries tremendous political risk for Prime Minister Koizumi, and it is the most dramatic step yet in Japan's decade-long emergence from its pacifist shell. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan adopted a constitution that renounced not only "war as a sovereign right" but even the "potential" to wage war. But following the end of the cold war and the humiliation of being unable to send troops to the first Gulf War, the country started making tentative steps toward transforming its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) into a full-fledged military. Under Koizumi's watch, the SDF has begun planning to add a slew of new, high-tech weapons such as a missile-defense shield and an aircraft carrier specifically for helicopters. He has also repeatedly suggested that Japan's previously sacrosanct constitution should be amended to modify its antiwar and antimilitary provisions. In the past, such a suggestion would have caused a national scandal. But today, more than 80% of respondents in one poll taken last December agreed that the constitution should be changed.
Critics say Koizumi isn't exerting greater international responsibility: he's just kowtowing to America. "The SDF deployment to Iraq wouldn't be a problem if it really were for humanitarian reasons," says Yasuo Ichikawa, an opposition member of Japan's parliament. "But it is first and foremost a show of support to the U.S. The U.S. invaded Iraq without a U.N. resolution, and Japan is now aiding in that act." Others assert that such initiatives can only culminate in a debilitating arms race sure to include both Koreas, mainland China and Taiwan. And many claim the mission is a flagrant violation of Japan's constitution. Opposition leader Naoto Kan has repeatedly charged that it's impossible to discern what is and is not a combat zone in today's Iraq, and has called for Koizumi to resign. There is no chance of that happening, but with parliamentary elections coming up in July and Koizumi's coalition government maintaining only a slim majority, the Prime Minister's political fortunes look tied more than ever to success in Iraq.
Even in the snowy, northern city of Asahikawa, home to the unit contributing the majority of the soldiers that are headed to Iraq, residents are circumspect about the mission. Atusko Kubo, a 51-year-old city councilwoman who also runs a yakitori shop, is spearheading an effort to modify the town's well-publicized yellow-ribbon campaign. Adopting the American symbol of troop support, the city's leaders and the chamber of commerce have encouraged shops and banks in the town to display the talisman. But to Kubo, the gesture has been hijacked by conservatives to support the mission, not the soldiers themselves. "It is naive, this attempt to depoliticize a political issue," she says. Instead, she is attempting to popularize a white and yellow ribbon combination. Its message: support the troops, oppose the war.
Public approval of the Koizumi administration has spiked to 53%up 7% in the last monthas early pictures of Japanese soldiers surrounded by smiling Iraqi children began streaming out of Samawah. But that goodwill could evaporate instantly with one spectacular attack against them. And keeping Japanese troops free from harm might be a tall order. Though Samawah is not an area of heavy Iraqi resistance, terrorists have already shown a willingness to target not only military forces but also relief organizations such as the U.N. and the Red Cross. "If there is one thread of consistency you can tease out of the insurgents' actions," says Japan watcher Karel van Wolferen, a Dutch author, "it's that soft humanitarian targets are just as good as more traditional military ones."
Thailand's experience in Iraq offers an unsettling, cautionary tale. Arriving at Camp Lima outside Karbala on Oct. 28, the Thai contingent quickly grew to more than 400, including engineers, military medics and soldiers. While Polish and U.S. troops handled combat operations in the area, the Thais provided humanitarian and support functions only, believing their low profile and humble bearing would buy them an added measure of safety. Just two months after their arrival, however, a car rammed one of their base's gates and detonated, killing sentries Master Sergeant Amporn Chulerd and Master Sergeant Mitr Klaharn. The soldiers' deaths, the first Thai combat fatalities on foreign soil since the Vietnam War, had an immediate and polarizing effect on the Thai public. The day after the attack, 57% of people in one poll in Thailand thought the government should bring the rest of the troops home.
Koizumi insists that Japan will remain in Iraq even in the face of lethal attacks or eroding public opinion because the time has finally come for the country to expand its role abroad. Other Asian leaders have voiced similar resolve. Whether they manage to complete their missions in Iraq with minimum casualties and a robust relationship with the U.S. and the rest of the world might depend on plain old grunts' luck. But by putting their troops on the ground in the first place, each country has taken a step into unknown territory.