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Men in Uniform Impress Japan's New Generation

The sight of military troops in Iraq alarms many who remember World War II, but among the young, it sparks a sense of pride.

February 07, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — With his dapper mustache and black beret, Col. Masahisa Sato is the heartthrob of the moment.

The head of an advance team of Japanese troops in Iraq, Sato has been a fixture on television here, shown kissing a tribal leader on the cheek in the Arab custom or pontificating on everything from the weather in Iraq to the geopolitics of the Middle East.

"He's so cool!" wrote one young woman on the website of a fan club for Sato. "His manly, handsome face is like the Japanese soldiers from the old days."

Among many young Japanese, there is an incipient pride in seeing their nation's flag fluttering above a desert encampment in Iraq and hearing their soldiers exchanging Arabic salutations with locals.

After months of tortured national debate, the first 90 soldiers of a 1,000-strong deployment left Tuesday for Iraq.

This is the first time since World War II that the Self-Defense Forces -- as the military is known because of the country's pacifist constitution -- are being deployed to what is deemed a war zone.

Even though the mission is defined as humanitarian, it has engendered intense opposition, with many calling it a dangerous, militaristic excursion that defies the letter and spirit of the constitution. But younger Japanese are far less squeamish about the mission and are showing their support in various ways.

The fan club for the photogenic Sato was started last month after an advance team of soldiers arrived in the southwestern Iraqi city of Samawah. Young Japanese have participated in rallies, donning yellow ribbons and handkerchiefs in a gesture of solidarity.

"I'm proud of the troops," said 16-year-old student Takayuki Kusano outside Tokyo's Shinjuku Station, a hangout for teens. "Our parents are against the dispatch. They are of the generation that still talks about World War II and they are against anything where people could be injured or killed."

"People in their teens and 20s want Japan to participate in a globalized world," agreed Yasuko Araki, 18.

A poll taken the last week of January for the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun supported the teenagers' views. While public opinion was evenly divided, those in their 20s supported the Iraq mission by 57% to 40%, while the ratios began to reverse themselves among people in their 30s and 40s.

The emerging gusto among younger Japanese can be seen at Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, a controversial memorial to the nation's war dead, including some deemed war criminals for their acts in World War II.

"You used to only see old people here, mainly retired veterans of war, but now I see many young people," said Taku Hamada, a 38-year-old businessman who came to the shrine to pray for the safe return of troops deployed this week.

"Because Japan lost World War II, people here over 40 are almost allergic to anything to do with war."

Indeed, in the cold drizzle of the afternoon, it appeared that most of the visitors were in their teens and 20s.

In contrast, the crowd of about 700 that turned out later in the evening for a candlelight demonstration in front of the Defense Agency was conspicuously dominated by those with gray hair and bifocals.

"I was born in Hiroshima, so I know the consequences of war. But it is hard for young people to understand what can happen or to appreciate the danger of Japan slipping into militarism," said Yuko Izumi, a 56-year-old woman huddled over her candle.

Those opposed to the troop dispatch point to Article IX of the postwar constitution, which says: "Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation." The constitution allows troops for self-defense only.

As a result, Japan was not part of the international coalition that fought Iraq in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but the nation picked up the tab for about 15% of the war's cost, said Toshiyuki Shikata, a retired general and former military attache to the Japanese Embassy in Washington.

"At that time, Japan was just asked to give money," Shikata said. "But now people are feeling that Japan has to do more. It is not only the money, but the sweat."

The Self-Defense Forces have participated in peacekeeping missions, notably in East Timor, Cambodia and Afghanistan. But those were carried out under United Nations auspices and did not require the level of protective gear and weaponry needed for the dangerous deployment in Iraq, where rebuilding infrastructure and delivering water would be among the chief tasks for the Japanese contingent.

No member of the Self-Defense Forces has been killed in combat since the organization's founding five decades ago, said Masashi Nishihara, president of Japan's National Defense Academy.

"We've never lost a single soldier, we've never used weapons, so this is a very important moment for the Self-Defense Forces and for Japan," Nishihara said. If Japan suffers numerous casualties in Iraq, that may cause a backlash against participation in international missions, he added, while "if it goes well, it could do a lot to build our prestige."

Supporters of the troop deployment describe it almost as a rite of passage for Japan. Several young Japanese said they had opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq because of doubts about the motives but were nonetheless strongly in favor of participating in the reconstruction.

"I used to be against the war in Iraq, but now that it's ended, I see this is a great chance for Japan. Going to Iraq is the biggest event for our troops since World War II," said Yukihiko Oikawa, a sharply dressed 18-year-old with teased hair who wore Ray-Ban glasses to visit the Yasukuni shrine.

An American diplomat who requested anonymity said: "You see a lot of younger people saying, 'We want Japan to be a normal country.' "

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