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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December 2004, 07:36 GMT
Japan extends its military reach
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News

Japan's decision to extend its troops' mandate in Iraq will mean they stay in the country for at least another year.

But the move, seen as part of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's efforts to reshape Japan's foreign policy, could have consequences for many years to come.

The decision is controversial because most of the Japanese people want the troops, who are only a humanitarian force, to leave.

A Japanese soldier is seen during the visit of Japan's defence chief Yoshinori Ono at the Japanese troops base in Samawah, 250 kilometres (150 miles) south of Baghdad 05 December 2004
Japanese troops are helping to rebuild infrastructure

They are worried that worsening security makes it more likely that the contingent will be pulled into conflict - risking not only lives, but the country's jealously guarded pacifist constitution.

But likewise the government, and some elements of the public, recognise that Japan needs to continue to commit troops for the sake of its US-Japan alliance, which affords the country protection against the threat of neighbour North Korea.

The decision to send troops to Iraq has always divided the nation. But while opinion polls have suggested the public has been roughly split over the issue in the last few months, more recent polls say about 60% of people were against the troops staying on for longer.

A Japanese government official said the public's perceptions were influenced by the recent insurgency in Falluja, even though security in Samawa in the south, where the Japanese troops are stationed, is much better, and they have suffered no casualties so far.

Protection quandary

Dutch troops also stationed in the town are due to leave in March, however, and the worry is the Japanese troops face a greater threat without them.

Their rules of engagement are very restricted - they can only fire in self-defence, and, if possible, they should wait for their commander's instruction first.

The thinking is 'hold our nose, look the other way, and support (the US) in a very nominal way
Jeff Kingston, Temple University

Neither do they go on patrols, and therefore could be surprised by an attack.

"Japanese troops are not well prepared to actively defend themselves. Their mission is not to maintain security," the official said.

The Japanese government is currently in discussions with the UK about the British taking over the Dutch role.

But security issues are not the only worry for the Japanese public. Many are concerned that the Iraq mission could spell the end for the pacifist article of the country's constitution.

This forever renounces war, and strictly speaking, forbids Japan from even keeping a military force.

It has already been re-interpreted to allow for a Self-Defence Force which has been deployed in peacekeeping and nation rebuilding exercises around the world.

The real issue is that the troops are nevertheless forbidden from serving in combat zones, and many people argue that Iraq - although technically no longer at war - is exactly that.

Japan's constitution renounces the use of force
This has been stretched to allow self-defence troops
1992 law allowed troops to join UN and relief work overseas
2003 law said troops could go to non-combat zones in Iraq
PM Koizumi wants to give Japan even greater powers

"It is the first time that the SDF forces have been sent to a country still in conflict," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan.

But the Japanese government's aspirations for its military may not end there.

A draft proposal by the country's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, seen by the country's media last month, made a number of proposals, including suggesting they engage in collective self-defence - shooting to protect their allies as well as themselves.

A final draft is expected in November 2005.

The Japanese government also announced, on Friday, its plans for defence spending over the next five years.

Japan's defence chief Yoshinori Ono arrives in Samawah, 250 kilometres (150 miles) south of Baghdad, 05 December 2004Japan's defence chief Yoshinori Ono arrives in Samawah, 250 kilometres (150 miles)
Defence chief Yoshinori Ono spent six hours in Iraq to show it was safe

The National Defence Programme Outline calls, among other things, for a relaxation to Japan's arms ban, and for more flexible military capabilities and an active engagement in peace-keeping, suggesting that in future Japanese forces will be deployed overseas more frequently.

While changes to the military are technically in contravention of Article 9 - which forbids Japan from maintaining any armed forces at all - a Japanese government official said this would not mean that the article needed to be rewritten. It is all a question of interpretation.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi does want to recommend changes to the constitution ultimately - and put them to a public referendum - but the official said this would not happen for several years.

The most high-profile sign of this change is the SDF's presence in Iraq.

Yoshioka Tatsuya, director of the Japanese NGO Peace Boat, said the troops' role was exactly that - symbolic, not substantive.

"We don't know the exact reason why we need to send troops to Iraq. They are just like a Far East poodle of Mr Bush," he said.

"We are really very angry."

Strategic thinking

Mr Kingston agreed that the troops were playing a minimal role and their real purpose was to demonstrate Japan's commitment to the US.

He said there were two main reasons for this: as a kind of "painful insurance policy" taken out to win US protection against North Korea, and to bolster Japan's campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

"The thinking is 'hold our nose, look the other way, and support them in a very nominal way,'" he said.

However nominal their role may be, it carries high political stakes.

"If a bunch of Japanese troops start dying, I think you'll have an evaporation of support for this," said Mr Kingston.

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