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Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010

Secrets and lies

Special to The Japan Times

Japan marked the 50th anniversary of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty on Jan. 19 amid calls for an inquiry into the dispatch of Japanese Self-Defence Forces to Iraq, which critics say was illegal. But in contrast to the fierce debates over the origins and legitimacy of the 2003 Iraq invasion in both the United States and the United Kingdom, there will be no investigation in Japan.

Yuriko Kondo is recalling her surprise that the state's democratic machinery eventually worked.

News photo
Lines of duty: ASDF members at Komaki, Aichi Prefecture, stand before an aircraft set to take them to Iraq in December 2003. AP PHOTO

Her three-year demand for information on how the Japanese government had spent billions of taxpayers' yen supporting a "humanitarian mission" in Iraq from January 2004 through to the end of 2008 had been partly answered. And it was worth the wait.

In late September, new Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa unexpectedly authorized the release of a short document under the Freedom of Information Act disclosing that about 67 percent of the 26,000 soldiers transported by the Air Self-Defense Forces between July 2006 and December 2008 wore U.S. uniforms. That is, the ASDF was transporting U.S. forces into and out of combat.

In case anyone missed the point, Kondo, a 60-year-old veteran peace activist from Ogaki in Gifu Prefecture spelled it out: Japan's Constitution bans the SDF from participating in combat activities or transporting weapons or ammunition in a war zone. For two years, the SDF had "snubbed the law," she says, and the government concealed the illegality with blacked-out documents and a standard Defense Ministry verbal firewall to the effect that releasing such information would "hamper operations" and "damage Japan's reputation."

"It was ludicrous and illegal to have sent the SDF to Iraq," she says, alluding to Japan's so-called war-renouncing Constitution. "This document proved that."

Kondo's views found support in one landmark legal ruling.

In April 2008, the Nagoya High Court declared that the ASDF airlifting of coalition troops was unconstitutional, violating both the (war-renouncing) Article 9 clause in the Constitution and specifically the hastily written 2003 "law on special measures for assistance to Iraq in its reconstruction" that provided the legal fig leaf for the SDF dispatch — on condition that Japanese forces would operate only in "noncombat" areas.

"In modern warfare, the transport of personnel and supplies constitutes a key part of combat," concluded Judge Kunio Aoyama.

"The airlift of multinational forces to Baghdad . . . plays a part in the use of force by other countries."

The then Liberal Democratic Party-led government disagreed, still declaring the ruling to be a victory because it rejected compensation claims by the 1,100 plaintiffs in the group action ruled on at Nagoya High Court.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura shrugged off accusations of illegality, quixotically arguing that Baghdad was "a noncombat zone." The ASDF crews stayed on in Kuwait until December 2008, and there the issue stood until Kitazawa's bombshell announcement — a sign, perhaps, that the Democratic Party of Japan that swept into power with a landslide election victory on Aug.30, 2009 is about to reverse years of official mendacity over government policies in Iraq.

Kondo agrees that the announcement was "surprising" and was probably attributable to new DPJ pressure, but she believes that the Defense Ministry simply no longer cares what people think about the SDF.

"It basically figured that the release of this information would not hurt its plans in the future," she says.

That reasoning, Kondo believes, was adopted because the government had already proved it could disregard popular opposition, flaunt the Constitution and ignore the little media flak the war generated. With the precedent set, the way is paved for more military adventures abroad, she argues. "If the government says in the future that we have done this before, Japanese citizens will accept that."

Says Hajime Kawaguchi, a lawyer lobbying for a government inquiry into the SDF dispatch: "We have to get to the bottom of this episode in Japan's history or we will pay the price. But there is no consciousness of the need to challenge the government. Nobody appears interested."

Kawaguchi believes that the archives could tell more. Were the SDF infantry based at Samawah in southern Iraq only engaged in "humanitarian assistance" to the local population? Were local insurgents, as some believe, paid off to prevent them attacking Japanese forces? And on the financial front, how much did the entire five-year mission cost Japanese taxpayers?

History is rarely written by people like Kondo or Kawaguchi, but nearly seven years after it was launched on March 20, 2003, the popular view of the U.S.-led war in Iraq among Japanese people may be closer to theirs than to that of the leaders who started it.

As everyone now knows, the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) used as the prime justification for the invasion never materialized. Similarly, significant links to al-Qaida were never found, and the nation that was promised democracy and prosperity is now a shattered, sectarian and Balkanized state with ethnic cleansing virtually eliminating the possibility for people of the Sunni and Shiite Muslim faiths to share neighborhoods or cities. More than two million Iraqis have fled abroad, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees; perhaps another 2.7 million have resettled elsewhere inside the country; and the most credible total death toll ranges from 100,000 to well over a million.

The impact back in the United States of the wider "war on terror" has also been profound.

That impact includes the legitimization of torture, the spread of government surveillance, the shredding of habeas corpus, Guantanamo, so-called extraordinary rendition, CIA dirty tricks, and the enormous price tag — a staggering $3 trillion for Iraq and Afghanistan, and counting, according to economist Joseph Stiglitz, who points out that ordinary Americans will be paying the price for George W. Bush's decision to go to war for decades.

But at least in the U.S. and its prime partner in arms, the United Kingdom, athough the war's prime culprit breezily plays golf in Texas, there has been a reckoning of sorts. Stemming from the continuing public debate, there has been a half-hearted mea culpa on torture and Guantanamo from President Barack Obama and a startling recent admission by Britain's prime minister at the time of the Iraq invasion, Tony Blair, that he would have invaded Iraq with or without WMDs. And that came ahead of his testimony to the government's current Iraq Inquiry announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in June 2009, which is due to report in June.


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