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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 December, 2003, 12:08 GMT
Diplomats' deaths shock pacifist Japan

By Jonathan Head
BBC correspondent, Japan

Car in which two Japanese diplomats were killed in Iraq
The diplomats were shot dead in their car

The funerals of two Japanese diplomats killed in Iraq last weekend have been held in Tokyo.

Hour after hour they have been showing the same pictures on TV news channels here.

They are the heart-breaking scenes of family grief, as the bodies of the two diplomats are slowly carried across the tarmac at Tokyo airport by a police honour guard.

Their coffins are draped in the Japanese flag.

Other countries have suffered greater casualties in Iraq, but it would be hard to find one in such a state of shock and confusion.

The words of the Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said it all: "Their deaths cause me immense grief. I'm completely lost for words."

Rule of law

Before he died, 45-year-old Katsuhiko Oku would post letters from his mission in Iraq onto the Foreign Ministry website.

He hoped to spark more interest among his countrymen and women, in a conflict that feels worlds away from this safe and orderly country.

Japan is an island nation with a strong sense of its own uniqueness, and of its separation from the troubles in the rest of the world.

Japanese prime minister
Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi backs US military action in Iraq

Its constitution - imposed by the Americans after World War II - bars Japan from using force to settle disputes.

No Japanese soldier has been killed in action since 1945, or has killed anyone else.

That's why one of the world's largest and most modern armed forces has almost never been used outside Japan.

It's also why there is now fierce debate over whether to honour Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's promise to send troops to Iraq.

Until now, instead of troops, Japan has always flexed its muscles abroad through an army of highly skilled diplomats and technocrats.

Their job is to make sure the world's second-largest aid budget is properly used, and that it helps win Tokyo friends and influence.

Katsuhiko Oku was part of that army.

A high-flying career diplomat, he left his job at the embassy in London last April, to join the new mission in Baghdad.

His emailed letters show a man with a burning zeal to help the Iraqi people get back on their feet.

The loss of precious lives must reinforce our determination not to give up the fight against terrorism
Katsuhiko Oku
He took a detailed interest in the economics of producing bread - Iraq's staple food - and in the education projects that Japan is supporting.

But he was also affected by the violence all around him.

Fighting back

In August he wrote how, by chance, he found the business card of a dead colleague from Unicef in the rubble of the bombed UN compound.

He saw that as a message to persist with his work.

After the car bombing of the Italian headquarters in Nasiriya last month, he reflected sadly on the deaths of four Iraqi schoolgirls in the blast.

But his resolve seemed unbowed.

"The loss of precious lives must reinforce our determination not to give up the fight against terrorism," he wrote.

Had he lived, Katsuhiko Oku might well have proved a powerful ally of the government's case for sending a military force to Iraq.

Anti-war protesters in Japan
Anti-war protesters in Japan

Instead, his death has had the opposite effect. Fewer than 10% of Japanese people now approve of the plan.

Meanwhile, an advance fact-finding team is in southern Iraq trying to find somewhere safe enough for Japanese troops to carry out their humanitarian mission.

Their rules of engagement ban them from using their guns for anything other then self-defence.

They can't even fire to defend their allies.

It's hard to understand why a country which allowed two unarmed diplomats to travel to Tikrit, is still unable to send its well-armed soldiers anywhere they might get shot at.

But that is a measure of this country's extraordinary aversion to war.


It all goes back to 1945.

Japan's defeat was seen as a national disaster and even today's generations are not allowed to forget.

Schoolbooks, which often skate over atrocities committed by Japanese troops in the rest of Asia, dwell heavily on the destruction wreaked by American bombing here; especially on the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Japan's Maritime Self-Defence destroyer Kurama
Japan's Maritime Self-Defence destroyer Kurama
It's not the Americans who are blamed, but the military leaders who dragged Japan into the war.

The conclusion many Japanese have drawn is that armies are a bad idea.

Their own is called a "Self-Defence Force".

Besides, Japan did so well without a proper army in the post-war years that it seemed they didn't need one.

That comfortable assumption no longer holds. Japan was stung by criticism of its so-called "chequebook diplomacy" in the first Gulf War.

Instead of military help, it offered huge sums of money to rebuild Kuwait.

The future

North Korea's recent nuclear and ballistic missile programmes pose a threat right on their doorstep.

The US is starting to grumble about the tens of thousands of troops it has to keep here to defend Japan.

This why Prime Minister Koizumi feels he must offer some troops - however limited their role - to help in Iraq.

When he accepted President Bush's request back in May, it probably looked like a golden opportunity to break with the past.

Seven months later, Iraq is a quagmire and Japan has just suffered its first two casualties.

For many Japanese, that memorable clause in their constitution - "forever renouncing war" - still makes a lot of sense.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 December, 2003, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Japan
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30 Nov 03 |  Middle East
Japan warning after terror threat
18 Nov 03 |  Asia-Pacific

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