TOKYO – Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi might have won public approval for the country’s troops to stay in Iraq despite the beheading there of a Japanese civilian by Islamic militants. But the big question, however, remains on whether he will get the same level of support needed to extend the troops’ mandate when it expires next month.
Japanese officials confirmed on Sunday that the body and severed head of a man found in Baghdad was that of 24-year-old backpacker Shosei Koda.
He had been captured by a militant group led by al-Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which had said it would behead him if Japan did not withdraw its 550 Self-Defense Forces (SDF) currently stationed some 270 km (168 mi.) south of Baghdad at Samawa.
The SDF are engaged in humanitarian and reconstruction work but their activities are limited because of the deteriorating security situation.
Four other Japanese – two diplomats and two journalists – have been killed in Iraq since the start of the U.S.-led war last year.
“It is a shame that the public has refused to see the political and social implications of the killing. Militants had demanded the return of Japanese troops in exchange for the life of a Japanese man, a situation that poses a new danger for Japanese,” said Daiin Nakahara, spokesperson for Peace Boat, a grass-root organization that takes Japanese youth on peace education trips abroad.
Indeed, despite the initial shock reaction over the cruelty of Koda’s death, the overwhelming public opinion has been that the young man invited death onto himself.
“It was really stupid of Koda to go to Iraq when there is so much violence in the country. He has only himself to blame, and I am glad Koizumi did not bow to terrorist demands,” Akiko Nakano, 25, a university graduate, told IPS.
Editorials in the Japanese media have also supported Premier Koizumi during the crisis over the past five days.
“Japan has to continue the SDF humanitarian and reconstruction mission in Iraq,” wrote the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, Japan’s largest daily, pointing out that the “Japanese calmly watched the government’s rescue efforts.”
Yet activists have not given up hope.
They say the media circus and the arrival of Koda’s coffin, accompanied by a flurry of news reports that reveal the pathetic journey of a youth who had innocently gone to Iraq to “see for himself” and was left wandering around the war-torn country with no money, would ultimately lead to timely soul-searching among the public.
Activists say this would put pressure on the government to stop Japan from getting entangled in global U.S.-led conflicts such as the current upheaval in Iraq.
Under the leadership of Koizumi, Japan took the unprecedented step of deploying its ground troops this January to Iraq – a controversial decision that has been criticized as against the nation’s peace constitution that forbids the dispatch of the SDF for conflicts overseas.
The government now faces a Dec. 15 deadline for the extension of the SDF’s mandate – which it is planning to sell to the public as an essential humanitarian mission in a Middle Eastern country that is trying to rise up from the ashes of destruction.
An Asahi Shimbun newspaper survey last month indicated that 60 percent of the Japanese surveyed were against the country’s SDF getting involved in Iraq.
Middle East analyst Yutaka Takaoka explains that though the majority of people are not sympathetic toward the dead backpacker, the government, however, has been at pains to appear committed to his release in a bid to play down any backlash against Japan’s role in Iraq.
Koizumi, for example, immediately set up a special task force to help the Koda family, and dispatched a senior official to monitor the case.
“It is regrettable. I feel renewed anger at such a barbaric and inhuman act,” a solemn- looking Koizumi told reporters on Sunday when news of the tragedy broke out.
When it came to answering reporters’ questions on the SDF’s mandate renewal, the Japanese premier exercised caution by saying the government will “comprehensively consider the situation in Iraq before making [any] judgment.”
“But I believe Japan has to provide its utmost support,” he added.
The careful display, according to political commentator Minoru Morita, shows how keen Koizumi is to keep public support behind him as he tries hard to meet U.S. expectations.
“Japan, billed as the closest ally to the United States, must keep up its show of support,” Morita said in an interview. “With the public divided on the Iraq deployment, Koizumi is treading with care.”
Middle East expert Takaoka points out that, for the time being, public opinion is pro- overnment given the massive earthquake in Niigata north of Japan, where thousands have been left homeless, coupled with people trying to cope with damage to their homes and property from recent typhoons.
“Yet the situation is tense after the killing. There is always the fear that the next victim could be a member of the SDF, and that could have wider repercussions for Koizumi,” said Takaoka.
In a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday evening, Peace Boat activists were joined by antiwar supporters who called for the withdrawal of the SDF from Iraq.
Said Keiko Arai, 50-year-old housewife: “I feel sorry for the Koda family and I am angry for Koizumi for choosing to stay with the United States, instead of protecting our own people.”
“Think about the situation carefully,” pleaded Peace Boat’s Nakahara to passersby.
“The government should have done more to save Koda, who was a victim of Japanese policy,” he said. “We have to fight against policies that only condemn us to a scary future.”