At the same time as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was in New York to make his latest pitch to the United Nations for Japan to be granted a full seat on the Security Council, members of the Self-Defence Forces were rebuilding bridges, schools and hospitals in and around the southern Iraq city of Samawah.

 

But as they are effectively being protected by Dutch units, which will be replaced by British troops in March, there have been criticisms that Japan's commitment is more of a liability to the coalition's resources than an asset.

 

Edward Newman, a professor at Tokyo's United Nations University, says, "It is a slightly awkward arrangement and people are not entirely comfortable with this situation, but I understand that if the Japanese did come under direct attack, they would have the right to defend themselves under their rules of engagement. It's just that they don't have that kind of firepower."

 

The Self-Defence Forces are at
present confined to the south

He added: "Japan has not committed a combat force and there is still this image that they have little to do and need someone to look after them, which contributes to the idea that the constitution is tying their hands behind their backs.

 

"But they're not a liability at all. If we accept that the important job Japan is doing is in terms of infrastructure, then it's more a division of labour."

 

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda announced recently that the Japanese Government is almost certain to extend the deployment of its troops in Iraq after the current mandate expires on December 14.

 

As well as the units tasked with providing humanitarian assistance in Samawah, around 200 members of the Air Self-Defence Force are operating in Kuwait.

 

Matter of impression

 

"As part of the coalition, Japan wanted to express its support in a visible manner - through the deployment of troops - but given the strict interpretation of Article 9 of the constitution, Japan cannot engage in active combat missions," Yuki Tatsumi, an analyst for the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said.

 

"Japan is trying to show that it can be a responsible player in the world effort to create and maintain peace and stability beyond merely providing financial assistance"

Yuki Tatsumi,
analyst, Council on Foreign Relations, New York

"Japan is trying to show that it can be a responsible player in the world effort to create and maintain peace and stability beyond merely providing financial assistance," she said.

 

"The deployment of the SDF does help its relations with Washington, but I do not think that is the primary driver."

 

In particular, Tatsumi believes, the presence of non-Western, non-Christian countries in the coalition may go some way to rectifying the impression of a war of Christians against Muslims.

 

Others see Koizumi's policy in the region as being muddled and merely an attempt to curry favour with Washington.

 

"There is no consistency to the government's policy in the Middle East, and Japanese troops are there primarily to show solidarity with the US government," Hiroshi Honda, a professor of politics at Hokkaido Gakuen University, said.

 

"But there are other reasons as well," he added.

 

"Oil is one consideration, but I also believe that the SDF is there because the government wants them to get used to combat situations. It's a kind of training programme: the SDF has never been in the position of being shot at and the whole thing is less about huminatarian assistance than training the troops."

 

Liability or asset?

 

Ed Lincoln, another analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, is equally scathing about Japan's commitment in the region.

 

Some analysts cast doubt on the
real nature of the deployment

"They are supposed to be working on water-supply systems, but there is actually very little news concerning their actual accomplishments," Lincoln said.

 

"Mainly they appear to be hunkered down inside their well-fortified base, allowing carefully screened locals to enter to pick up containers of water and only occasionally venturing outside to engage in construction projects."

 

Describing the Japanese presence as "very much a token", Lincoln said their reliance on the Dutch or local Iraqi groups to protect their perimeter means they may well be more of a liability than an asset.

 

"For the Japanese, this token presence advances the long-standing goal of conservatives in Japan to return to being a 'normal nation'," he said.

 

"There is no consistency to the government's policy in the Middle East, and Japanese troops are there primarily to show solidarity with the
US government"

Hiroshi Honda,
Professor of politics,
Hokkaido Gakuen University

"Despite the prohibition on military force in the existing constitution, the government has chipped away at this prohibition over the past 15 years and this is an additional step," Lincoln said.

 

"The discussion of constitutional revision is no longer a controversial topic in Japan."

 

The positives for the United States are more incremental, he said.

 

Unqualified support

 

According to Lincoln, "What Washington really wanted - and got - was the Japanese Government's unqualified support for the invasion of Iraq. The presence of actual troops helps to solidify the image of Japanese support but it was not really necessary."

 

Koizumi's pro-US stand on Iraq is
seen by many as 'alliance politics'

United Nations University's Newman disagrees. He said, "In the last 10 years, Japan has implemented and revised the Peace Keeping Law and other legislation, so this is the next step in a series of moves substantiating Japan's role in world politics.

 

"Because sending the troops to Iraq was controversial, that makes it easy for the sceptics to dismiss it as 'alliance politics'.

 

"However, Japan is really demonstrating that despite the constitution, it can contribute to international peace and security in post-conflict infrastructure building."

 

Newman added, "I would say the decisions have been risky, even daring. Japan is clearly showing that it is less insular than it was in 1990, at the time of the first Gulf War, and that it is ready to put troops in harm's way and I think that's partly in the context of Japan's quest for better representation in the UN.

 

"But it also projects a very clear signal that Japan is ready to take on the responsibility of being a bigger player."