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Burying the Lessons of the Iraq War

By Michael Penn

SNA (Tokyo) — There is probably no better method of predicting what people and institutions might do in the future than to have an accurate understanding of their behavior in the past. So much of what is popularly taken as surprising and “unpredictable” might easily have been foreseen by a better knowledge of the contexts, experiences, and the previous actions of the players involved in the construction of an event.

When powerholders attempt to suppress the records of official behavior, it is therefore not simply the concern of a handful of cloistered intellectuals, but a matter that can be expected to have real-world impact on future policymaking and the fate of ordinary citizens.

As the Japanese Diet considers Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Legislation for Peace and Security” (known as “the War Bills” to its critics), it should therefore be a requirement that the records of Japan’s policymaking processes during the Iraq War be made fully available for public examination.

“In foreign countries, even if the actual documents are not released, a certain amount of information is disclosed in the process of investigation,” explained Yukiko Miki, chairperson of the NPO Information Access Clearinghouse Japan at a press conference held at the Judicial Press Club in Kasumigaseki on July 16. She continued, “Foreign governments will tolerate these disclosures, but in Japan external investigations are declined… In the United States, there are historians within the respective sections of the government and there is a sense of objectivity within the government. There are processes that allow investigation from points of view that are different from the perspectives of the people who carry out the policies inside the government.”

Miki Presser

The press conference at the Judicial Press Club

So far as is known, the Japanese government has compiled only one report about the policymaking processes that led to its full support for the Bush administration’s launching of the Iraq War in March 2003 and the deployment of Self-Defense Forces into that country. This report is known as the “MOFA Iraq Report” because it was compiled internally by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Despite repeated requests from Information Access Clearinghouse Japan, only a four-page summary of the report has been publicly revealed. This stands in contrast to the long and detailed reports published in other “Coalition of the Willing” nations such as the United Kingdom and Australia.

Information Access Clearinghouse Japan has launched a lawsuit in an attempt to require the Japanese Foreign Ministry to release its full report, like these other nations have done.

The NPO’s press release explains, “There has been little progress in Japan in the disclosure of information related to national security and foreign affairs. Secrecy and nondisclosure of information concerning international negotiations and the making of foreign policy is taken for granted… The government monopolizes these issues and the people are kept in the dark. But these matters are of the greatest importance to the Japanese people. Maximum disclosure of such information is necessary to fulfill the people’s right to know about the actions of their government.”

The point of view of Information Access Clearinghouse Japan ought to be common sense in any nation that views itself as a democracy. The present reality, however, is that the Japanese government bureaucracy still functions in an environment in which it is shielded from all outside scrutiny. Even the declassification, archival, and historical processes that characterize the United States—for all of its other faults—are not operating in Japan.

As one result, even as Japanese politicians debate in the Diet about the advisability or otherwise of new security legislation and new powers for the administration to deploy troops overseas, they do so without even having a clear grasp of events that occurred a decade ago.

The Shingetsu News Agency questioned Democratic Party of Japan leader Katsuya Okada about this point at his June 5 press conference at the DPJ headquarters. Okada replied, “The Japanese Self-Defense Forces were involved in reconstruction assistance in Samawa and transport operations based at Baghdad Airport. I have likewise said to the government in the last deliberation of the committee that detailed data concerning transport operations in Baghdad should be disclosed. I have particularly asked for information on whether the SDF was exposed to danger or not; and if it was, what kinds of cases occurred. I am currently waiting for the government’s response.”

Even the head of Japan’s largest opposition party (and himself a former foreign minister) apparently has difficulty obtaining information about what the Self-Defense Forces actually did in Iraq in the previous decade.

It should be noted in this context that the Kuwait-Baghdad transport mission of the Air Self-Defense Forces that Okada refers to was declared unconstitutional in April 2008 in an obiter dictum by Nagoya High Court Judge Kunio Aoyama. That document revealed that the ASDF had been engaged in transporting “armed soldiers” of the coalition military forces in violation of both the law by which the SDF had been deployed to Iraq as well as under Article Nine of the Constitution.

Then-Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura—now the outspoken Vice-President of the Liberal Democratic Party leading the charge for Abe’s security bills—dismissed Judge Aoyama’s obiter dictum at the time as representing just “one man’s opinion” and “of no particularly great importance.”

This event anticipated Komura’s more recent dismissal of the majority of constitutional scholars’ assessments of the Abe security bills as simply their own opinions as individuals who—unlike politicians such as himself—do not bear real-world responsibilities.

At any rate, just as the past has turned out to be a very good indicator for Masahiko Komura’s public statements, it is also a valuable resource for understanding what is likely to happen at the national level.

The lawsuit of the Information Access Clearinghouse Japan ought not be necessary. Instead, a government which is so fond of citing its own “responsibility” should act in same fashion as other mature democracies and put the framework in place to allow serious external examinations of the historical record. To do otherwise is to offer silent testimony to the fact that Japan remains far from being one of the world’s leading democratic nations.

Michael Penn is the President of the Shingetsu News Agency.

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