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Japan's peacekeeping cover-up scandal recalls WWII-era malady

Imperial Army ignored or downplayed inconvenient information in closing days of war

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GSDF members stand guard as their colleagues build protective barriers in the U.N. peacekeeping operations facility in Juba, South Sudan, last November.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- The Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force continues to be embroiled in a scandal, in which it covered up the existence of logs of its daily activities in United Nations-led peacekeeping operations in South Sudan. The logs indicate that fighting had flared up at the time the GSDF personnel were in the area, creating problems for the Japanese troops who are allowed to engage in peacekeeping operations only when a cease-fire is in place.

While all attention has been given to why the log was hidden, the real issue is why the GSDF did not immediately halt its mission and pull out its peacekeepers. The Japanese defense authorities knew what was happening, but apparently did not listen, or choose to change courses from established policy. Many see similarities with the former Imperial Japanese Army.

Although it is not widely known, there were high-ranking officials in the Ministry of Defense who called for an immediate halt to the mission and withdrawal of the troops from South Sudan when fighting began again last July. Just as when GSDF peacekeepers were withdrawn from the Golan Heights in January 2013, the troops' safety could no longer be guaranteed, they said.

Mission continued

But the ministry decided to continue the peacekeeping activities in South Sudan. "A certain amount of deterioration in security would be an opportunity to toughen the nerve of the troops," some officials asserted. Once the ministry's decision was made, the officials who had initially argued for the withdrawal had to toe the line. In the end, some of those officials were caught in the center of the cover-up storm. Although they have not spoken up, one can only imagine their chagrin.

A C-130 aircraft takes off from the Air Self-Defense Force's Komaki Airbase on July 11 last year to transport Japanese personnel living in South Sudan back to Japan after the civil war re-erupted in that country.

As conditions in South Sudan failed to improve, those calling for the continuation of the peacekeeping activities gradually lost momentum. The government eventually decided in March to halt the mission, saying that more than five years of peacekeeping in South Sudan -- building and revamping facilities -- had achieved certain results. All the troops, except for two majors working at the U.N. peacekeeping headquarters in South Sudan, had left the country by May this year.

If the GSDF peacekeepers had stopped their activities and withdrawn immediately after the civil war re-erupted last July, neither the subsequent log cover-up scandal, nor the infighting and the deep rift it left in the Defense Ministry, would have happened.

The log cover-up was used to hide misjudgment by the defense authorities -- those who did not squarely face up to the worsening conditions in South Sudan and forcefully continued the mission. They were, as it were, lying to conceal another lie. Therefore, focusing on the log cover-up alone does not get to the root of the problem. Calling the problem simply a log cover-up issue misses its true nature.

The question Japanese citizens and lawmakers should ask is: "What was discussed between the Defense Ministry, the Secretariat of the International Peace Cooperation Headquarters at the Cabinet Office, and the prime minister's office when the South Sudan situation deteriorated?" How all of them were persuaded to continue the mission, is another issue that must be clarified.

Japan participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations stems back to 1992, when it dispatched troops to Cambodia. Although there were some hiccups to begin with, the Self-Defense Forces understood the importance of clear and transparent information, which would ensure it could both accomplish its duties and protect the safety of its members.

Peacekeeping operations are anything but safe. The Canadian Armed Forces, for example, has continued to send troops to these types of operations even though it has lost more than 100 personnel. "Japan cannot simply withdraw its troops at the first sign of a situation destabilizing," advocates in Japan's Defense Ministry say. "Japan is no longer a neophyte in the U.N. operations," they stress.

While they do have a point, they also seem ignorant to the fact that the Japanese people are most likely not prepared to accept Japanese troops being killed during peacekeeping duties. Many countries, including Japan, have extended a helping hand to South Sudan to assist the newly independent country. Nevertheless, factions seeking to continue the civil war still hold sway over the country.

GDSF members on the ground reported that there was a "battle going on." The logs, which eventually were released, agreed, clearly indicating that major fighting had resumed. Yet that information was downplayed. Moreover, no one seemed to consider the precedent of the Golan Heights mission, which was halted because it became impossible to continue in a safe and stable manner. Perhaps the safe return of the GSDF peacekeepers was largely thanks to luck?

Desperate quibbling

In the past, Japan had a military organization which disregarded information and glossed over facts -- the Imperial Japanese Army. After the Japanese military clashed with the U.S. in the Formosa Air Battle in the final years of World War II, the Imperial Army declared a "smashing victory" without confirming the information. When it learned later that the stunning victory was a fabrication, Imperial Army headquarters sat on the information, saying, "It was impossible to retract the announcement of the victory." When the GSDF logs, which were supposed to have been discarded, were found in the Ground Staff Office, a civilian senior official at the Joint Staff reportedly made a similar remark.

Insisting that the fighting in South Sudan was not a battle but a clash, the Ministry of Defense quibbled about the situation in desperation, just like the Imperial Army disguised its retreat as "strategic anabasis."

The Defense Ministry and the SDF is now at a crossroads. It could repeat the Imperial Army's mistake of blindly clinging to existing strategy by playing down information and eventually ruining itself; or it could push through a new, postwar path that is rational and values information. Unless the defense authorities correct their posture now, the Imperial Army's malady could spread throughout their organization.

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