by Suvendrini Kakuchi
(IPS) TOKYO --
has long been known as a U.S. ally, but never more so than now, given the lengths it is going to show solid support for Washington's plans for post-invasion Iraq.
Tokyo's backing of its closest ally -- on whose security umbrella it has relied on for more than five decades -- is such that it is stepping back from its traditional use of 'checkbook diplomacy' in international affairs and is expected to send thousands of troops to Iraq in October.
On July 4, the Lower House passed a bill that would allow the sending of Self-Defense Forces (SDF) -- as Japan's closest thing to a military is called -- to support rehabilitation efforts and give logistical support to U.S. and British troops in Iraq.
The bill marks the first time the SDF will be going abroad without the involvement of the United Nations, a ceasefire between warring parties, and a request from the country involved. These are the conditions spelled out in a 1992 law that Japan passed on peacekeeping operations.
Japan is one of some 20 countries that Washington -- whose troops have come under violent attacks in Iraq -- is believed to have asked for help in its occupation of Iraq. India last week denied a similar U.S. request.
Debate has been raging about what the new bill shows about Japan's views of its role in international affairs.
"The bill serves two purposes," Professor Satoshi Morimoto, an expert on international development at Tokyo University, said in an interview. " Japan is supporting the United States at this time of need, and also showing its commitment to stability of the Middle East."
But whether Japanese presence will help stability, or just U.S. aims, is another matter, argues critics like Naoto Kan, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan who has spoken out against the bill. "Smaller conflicts are still going on in Iraq. We cannot tolerate the SDF joining an occupation force," he said earlier this month.
The bill would permit initially about 10,000 members of the SDF -- which the Japanese Constitution created as a defensive force to prevent future military aggression by Tokyo -- to assist U.S. troops in Iraq.
Tokyo's stance drew praise from British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In Tokyo Saturday, he said he welcomes all that Japan is "preparing to do in respect of Iraq, all necessary to our common goal of ensuring stability."
Already, Japan's SDF is involved in assistance to Iraq but at the United Nations' request. On Thursday, two C-130 transport planes took off from Komaki base in Aichi prefecture, central Japan, on the way to ferry aid from a UN base in Italy to Amman, Jordan.
The C-130s were sent after a request by the Rome-based UN World Food Program. They will be shuttling between Italy and Jordan to airlift supplies and are scheduled to last until Aug. 18.
The bill now being debated would allow the SDF to be active in Iraq for four years.
The measure is quite different from the nature of Japan's past international operations. SDF troops helped reconstruction efforts in Cambodia after a UN accord in 1993 and in East Timor after the UN-sponsored ballot in 1999 that led to its independence. It also provided assistance in Afghanistan.
In stark contrast to the situation today, Japan in the first Gulf War restricted its role to economic aid -- $2 billion -- to the U.S.-led troops ousting Iraq from Kuwait.
The change in the nature of SDF activities overseas has caused discomfort against a backdrop of unrest in Iraq and international opinion against Washington for going to war there without legitimate reason.
An early July poll by the 'Asahi' newspaper showed that 46 percent supported the new bill, while the rest were opposed to it. Respondents cited fear and worry about Japan getting involved in the controversy surrounding Iraq, the legitimacy of its occupation and the still-fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction.
Most supportive respondents, however, said that Japan must contribute to Iraq's reconstruction. Many also said they valued Japan's relationship with the United States.
The same poll showed, however, that a high number of Japanese -- 57 percent -- still do not believe that the U.S. and British governments were justified in invading Iraq in March.
In the Diet, many opposition politicians suggested that the government send private civilians instead of the SDF, pointing out they could also well contribute to relief activities.
To appease the public, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who had pushed to make bill a permanent law, has promised to keep the SDF out of any military conflict. "Japanese troops will be engaged in humanitarian work to assist the people of Iraq. They will not be involved in combat areas. The government will take a careful look into the situation before deciding on activities that the public approve of," Koizumi told the Diet at one point.
Apart from taking part in the WFP program, Japan has pledged $5.5 million to the UN Development Program to restore the distribution of electricity in Iraq.
Recently too, the first dispatch of Japanese aid -- called the Japan Platform -- through local non-government organizations was reported under a public fund of $68 million. Peace Winds, an NGO, organized the first consignment of medical aid that arrived at a hospital in Iraq this month.
Sakura Sakakibara, an expert on the Middle East at the Mitsui Global Strategies Studies Center, says public support for this kind of assistance shows how much more politically acceptable UN- organized aid is. "The aid is not political. The Japanese public thus supports this aid. The involvement of the United Nations in Japanese aid, makes it easier for the public to swallow the bitter pill of seeing the SDF used in Iraq," he explained.
Hibiki Yamaguchi, an activist with Peace Depot, says that while he is dead against the use of SDF in Iraq to help U.S. troops, he is not against their role with the WFP. "The UN has experience in conflict resolution and relief activities. It is best that Japan restricts its role to the UN," he said.
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