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Let Japan's Self-Defense Forces Take Some Risk




Some controversies could only be controversies in Japan.


The “rediscovery” of supposedly lost logs of the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) unit deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2006 reveal that troops were sometimes exposed to danger.


I should hope so.  It was Iraq after all.


And other “misplaced” but “found” logs from the GSDF’s peacekeeping duties in South Sudan from 2012 to 2017 indicate that country was dangerous as well. South Sudan dangerous?   Pass the smelling salts, please.



The fuss over the lost and found records is partly an effort to hurt Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even by people in his own party. But beyond domestic politics, it raises certain concerns about Japan’s willingness to defend itself.



Japan needn’t apologize for being careful about where and when it deploys troops overseas. All nations do that—except for a few that dispatch troops to PKO operations to earn income. Even the United States is sometimes careful. Traumatized by losing 19 men in Somalia during the Blackhawk Down incident in 1993, the U.S. stood clear when Rwanda came to pieces a year later and allowed a million Africans to die in tribal bloodletting.


The Japanese government did try to stack the deck in Iraq and find the safest part of the country—and also enlisted the Australians to protect the GSDF. In other words, it was getting credit for participating in a war without actually being in it.  Finding a perfectly safe spot to send Japanese forces was perhaps unrealistic.


Fortunately, the GSDF stayed and did a credible job—and also built up the confidence and gained useful experience that come from such endeavors. Indeed, exposure to danger often makes for a better military.


The GSDF also performed well in South Sudan—as has the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) in every overseas deployment.



As for the missing logs, Japan should be grateful they were “misplaced”—or at least not highlighted. Otherwise, GSDF would have probably been pulled out of Iraq soon after it arrived—to Japan’s lasting humiliation. Indeed, the reason for sending the GSDF to Iraq was to avoid the embarrassment of the first Gulf War when Japan wrote an enormous check while allowing other countries to do the hard work.


Heading for the exits at the first sign of trouble in South Sudan would have been similarly embarrassing.


Japanese involvement in peacekeeping types of operations has come a long way from Cambodia in 1992, where there was fierce debate over whether deployed personnel could carry pistols.  


But critics of PKO missions and other overseas deployments are still being unrealistic. While demanding perfect security before allowing JSDF to head off, they seem to expect the parties to a given conflict to declare: “Hold your fire! The Japanese are here. We mustn’t frighten them.”


Sending troops overseas is always risky, as is keeping them in Japan—as a spate of fatal training accidents demonstrate. Danger is part and parcel of military service. Just as when firemen do their jobs or train for them, there’s risk involved.



Japan’s hypersensitivity towards risk and casualties goes beyond prudence. And it even raises doubts about Japan’s commitment to defending itself, and maybe even its usefulness as an ally.



One retired American officer with long experience with the JSDF commented: “Until prime ministers stop doing things like vowing to resign if there is a single Japanese casualty on a pretty basic peacekeeping mission, then Japan will not be taken seriously. [We] will never be truly enthusiastic about the SDF as long as they can’t show the real-world will to combat of the Australians, Danes, Latvians, or Poles.”


Of course, alliance managers on both sides claim the U.S. and Japan are in lock step and the Japanese will “stand tall” when the time comes.


That may be so. But one still wonders. A lot depends on the particular circumstances when Japan is called to join the fray. And a lot depends on the Prime Minister. People in Japan won’t all share Mr. Abe’s “forward leaning” sense of what Japan needs to do to defend itself —and the Americans.  



And Mr. Abe may be gone sooner than expected; and ironically the “misplaced” GSDF logs controversy weakens him to some degree. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, on whose watch Iraq happened, gets a pass, however. He’s anti-Abe after all.


Some critics claim the “missing logs” threaten the principle of civilian control of the military. Really? The JSDF was defanged from the day it was founded, and remains so. When JSDF leaders are too afraid to even publicly speak up about JSDF shortcomings and inadequate budgets, missing logs aren’t a sign a military coup is in the offing. Indeed, it’s an understandable reaction to decades of harping and criticism of even the most commonsensical JSDF activities and the JSDF’s very legality.


At the end of the day, if Japan expects others to take risk on its behalf, it’s useful to take risks on others’ behalf. And don’t insist on a Japanese exemption from dangers that others are facing.


One Southeast Asian defense expert noted recently: “Polls show the Japanese perceiving a worsening security environment. But if the mentality is to always keep their troops out of harm’s way, who’s going to defend the country?”


That’s a good question. Why not let the JSDF do its job?



Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and a retired United States Marine Officer. He was the the first US Marine liaison officer to the Japan Ground Self Defense force and was instrumental in promoting the JSDF’s initial moves towards an amphibious capability.





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