TOKYO -- On Friday, a C-130 evacuation plane dispatched by Japan's Self-Defense Forces took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, for neighboring Pakistan. It had just one Japanese evacuee aboard.
The passenger informed the government an intention to leave Afghanistan. Several other Japanese in the country said they did not wish to depart at this stage. With that, members of the Foreign Ministry and the SDF who had been sent to Kabul also packed their bags and moved to a nearby country.
The empty plane was symbolic of the bungled evacuation effort by the Japanese government, which had initially planned to move as many as 500 people to safety.
Japan ended its official evacuation operation on Friday, the day after two bomb attacks near Kabul's airport that killed at least 170 people, though Tokyo has said it will continue trying to get people out of the country.
Japan's efforts paled in comparison to American and European efforts that have brought tens of thousands to safety. Critics say the government lacked a sense of urgency and awareness about the importance of helping locals who worked with Japanese staffers.
The decision to dispatch SDF aircraft for evacuations came on Monday, a week after the U.S. and European countries had sent military planes to Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul to Taliban militants on Aug. 15. Over that time, the situation on the ground grew tougher by the day.
By Aug, 17, the government had evacuated Japanese Embassy staff, employees of the Japan International Cooperation Agency and other Japanese nationals to a third country, in coordination with American forces and with transportation provided by the U.K. But Afghan workers who had supported Japan over the past two decades were left behind.
Contrast this with the response by the U.K., whose ambassador stayed in the country to continue processing visas for Afghan applicants.
The SDF-led evacuation was intended to be larger in scope. Japan's Foreign Ministry estimated that fewer than a dozen Japanese nationals were to be repatriated in this operation, while the number of Afghan staff and family members to be rescued numbered in the hundreds.
The C-130 transport plane did not arrive until Thursday at the Kabul airport from Islamabad, the day of the attacks. Most of those who wanted to leave were unable to get to the airport at that point, and Japanese aircraft made multiple fruitless trips.
European countries, meanwhile, have made steady progress. Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have all announced the completion of their evacuations of their citizens and foreign partners. Germany has flown out roughly 5,000 people.
Kazuto Suzuki, a professor at the University of Tokyo, argued that the government did not view the situation with the urgency it required. "They were too hasty in pulling out embassy staff without deciding how to handle the Afghans who had been working there" and elsewhere, Suzuki said.
"Japan does not do enough emergency planning," he said.
There were also logistical challenges unique to Japan and its pacifist constitution.
The evacuation operation involved five steps: transporting evacuees to the Kabul airport, confirming their identities, getting them out of Afghanistan, transporting them to Japan and getting them through the immigration process. It faltered at the first hurdle.
Tokyo has interpreted Japan's constitution to allow only the minimum necessary use of force for self-defense, and the law similarly places tight restrictions on SDF activity. Particularly risky scenarios like the Afghanistan troop withdrawal give rise to limits on the SDF's response.
The U.S. and some European countries sent military helicopters to extract people from the city. The SDF, however, was legally blocked from operating outside the airport area that had been secured by American forces.
People "have no choice but to secure their own" transportation, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said Monday.
The evacuation was conducted under Section 84, Article 4 of the Self-Defense Forces Act, which allows for the SDF to transport Japanese citizens abroad in the event of unrest -- but only if it can be done safely.
The government permitted the SDF to operate at the airport with American forces maintaining security. But this did not extend to areas in Kabul outside U.S. control, where conditions were deteriorating.
Invoking Section 3, which gives greater flexibility to use force if necessary, would let the SDF protect Japanese nationals whose lives are in danger. But the consent of the country involved is strictly required -- not a realistic option with Afghanistan under Taliban control.
During past overseas deployments, such as in Iraq, Japan overcame the gap between the constraints on the SDF and the reality on the ground by adjusting its interpretation of the constitution.
The Afghanistan evacuation, by illustrating the challenges the SDF faces even in protecting Japanese citizens -- part of the role of a nation-state -- has cast the contradictions in this system into sharp relief.