Hideki Akamatsu deploys his forces on a white board in the operations room. A master sergeant in the 45-man Japanese peacekeeping contingent on the Golan Heights, Akamatsu scribbles details of the vehicles he sent out of the base on this morning's mission. "We are well-trained and we are not afraid," he says. "We are ready to handle anything." What he's handling, however, is nothing more dangerous than the outsourced laundry of the Canadian peacekeepers who share Camp Zirouani with the Japanese. Outside, Akamatsu's commanding officer, Major Shinji Furusho stands watch for the laundry truck to return from the Israeli resort town of Tiberias. Two massive, white armored personnel carriers (APC) begin their patrol beyond the gate. Manning the huge vehicles are a dozen Austrians, barking politely in German over the roar of their engines. The Austrians patrol the disengagement line between Israel and Syria. The Japanese deliver the milk. Furusho gazes up at the snow-capped ridge of Mount Hermon. "I'm an infantry officer, not a logistics man," he grins. "I have an urge to go up there on patrol." The laundry truck returns and Furusho's men unload pillowcases puffed full of clean underwear. Mission accomplished.
The Japanese government gave a limited mandate to its troops when sending the first contingent to the Golan Heights almost six years ago. Mindful of the fear of Japanese militarism throughout Asia that still lingers from World War II and restrained by the country's constitutional bar on military aggression, Japan proscribed its troops with curtailed rules of engagement. Their presence was meant to be more symbolic than confrontational. Says Lieut. Colonel Amir Mokady, who heads Israel's army liaison with the U.N. forces on the Golan, Israel is glad to have a big industrial nation like Japan participating in the peacekeeping force on its border. "They have a lot of influence on global points of view," he says.
Such influence isn't readily apparent on the Golan. For the men on the ground who make up Japan's only overseas military operation, the curbs on their duties are surreal, a day-to-day life ripped out of the pages of Catch-22. Soldiers aren't allowed even to shovel snow from the street with troops from other countries because that would be an exercise of collective security. If the stable situation in their section of the Golan were to deteriorate into conflict, Furusho's men are allowed to shoot to kill only in self-defense. The Canadians have orders to use lethal force to protect themselves, U.N. civilian employees and the Japanese. That's one reason why the guard at Camp Zirouani's gate is always Canadian. "Japanese troops can't work together with other troops," says Gen Nakatani, who was in the army for four years and, as a member of parliament, has visited the Golan contingent. "They're there with other teams but have to operate within Japan's own rules and regulations."
The Japanese on the Golan have earned a reputation among their peers as disciplined soldiers and meticulous planners, prevented from responding quickly to unexpected situations because their every move has to be checked with Tokyo-based officials. "As Canadians we just wing a lot of things," says Lieut. Colonel Bruce Harding, who commands the joint Canadian-Japanese logistics battalion. "The Japanese are much more precise and orderly. You don't want to surprise them with anything."
Harding has, perhaps, the longest experience in dealing with Japan's military of any operational commander outside Japan's shores. As deputy chief of logistics in the U.N. peacekeeping force in Cambodia (UNTAC), Harding met Japanese top brass in June 1992 at U.N. headquarters in Phnom Penh. The officers were planning one of Japan's first military detachments overseas since the conclusion of World War II. "They asked me a million questions all morning," he says. Four months later, a Japanese engineering unit of 600 men arrived with top-of-the-line equipment for road building in Cambodia. Harding describes them as "very well prepared." But the force came under fire at home for having a limited mandate when an unprotected Japanese policeman was killed by guerrillas because soldiers were stationed in a secure area miles away. Japan has also sent its soldiers minesweeping in the Persian Gulf, peacekeeping in Mozambique and on humanitarian missions to Rwanda and Honduras. The unit in the Golan is the one long-term operation.
Planning was just as obsessive for the Golan mission. On the eve of the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur in 1995, Mokady was called to the Japanese embassy in Tel Aviv to address senior Japanese diplomats, a delegation of lawmakers and top military officers. The barrage of questions he faced focused on the safety of the Japanese soldiers. "I managed to convince them that it's not chaos over here," Mokady says of the situation in their sector of the Golan.
The skittishness is rooted in Japan's constitutional reluctance to get involved in a fight and a profound pacifism that settled over the nation after the devastation of the nuclear weapons dropped on Japanese cities. Japan calls its army the Self-Defense Force. Its soldiers don't wear uniforms on their commute to offices in Japan. Despite an annual defense budget of $40 billion and such high-tech arms as F2 fighters and guided missile destroyers newspapers were enraged last year when Tokyo's governor, the nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, referred to the Self-Defense Force as a "military." Years ago, children of Japan's 240,000 servicemen and women were bullied by schoolteachers: teachers' unions in Japan are strongly pacifist. The army's involvement in peacekeeping missions since 1992 has changed that image and teachers now take kids on day trips to military bases to hear about relief operations. Japan's constitution, which is up for debate, renounces war as a way to solve international conflict. Many conservatives believe it puts Japan in the shadow of the U.S., which imposed the constitution after the Japanese surrender in 1945. In the past few years, revisions to the constitutional role of Japan's military have been broached. A resurgent China makes the Japanese nervous and they also wonder about the reliability of the U.S. military umbrella if something like a North Korean missile one of which hit 360 miles offshore in 1998 were to disturb the region's peace.
The disengagement line along the Golan ridge is as about as stable as a disputed border can be. There are none of the skirmishes and violence that blow up around the separate U.N. force a few kilometers away in southern Lebanon. Though two Austrians were shot dead three years ago probably by criminals on the Syrian side of the border the Japanese have managed to send 11 contingents for six months apiece without so much as losing a pair of socks.
The Japanese troops under Furusho's command are mostly from the army, though there's a handful of navy and air force men. When Furusho looked for volunteers, he had three times as many as he could take. The soldiers get briefings on local culture, tastes and taboos and three months of English training though their poor command of the lingua franca on base is their main operational problem.
When the latest contingent of Japanese arrived two months ago, Furusho, 35, addressed newcomers and veterans at a hand over ceremony in the Canadian gym on base. "Unite and integrate, that's my order to you," he said. "Unite with each other, and integrate with the other contingents." Given their mandate that's difficult while on duty, but off hours reveal a different story. At the end of each day, Japanese soldiers jog with Canadians through the apple orchard outside the base, in the shadow of the balloon-shaped radar antennae of the Israeli listening station on Mount Avital. They play baseball with the Canadians and soccer with the Poles. Canadian soldiers eschew the beef lasagne of their own cooks and chow down in the noisy mess hall on tempura and miso soup prepared by Furusho's three cooks.
In the unseasonably hot sun, Furusho surveys the small rock garden he built outside his barracks. Next to the gray stones and tiny green bushes lazes Buddy, the company's guard dog. Buddy lies about all day on a green mat, barely moving. The joke among the soldiers is that the dog appears to do little but, if anyone tries anything, he would leap into action. That's maybe how they would like to see themselves. The lives of the Japanese soldiers here are not much more exciting than Buddy's. And if Buddy stays bored, that's good news for Japan.