Japan Looks to Protect Its Own Overseas

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Marine photo

Japanese paratrooper escorts volunteers during evacuation drill in Thailand in 2012. A similar exercise this weekend took on greater meaning after 10 Japanese citizens were killed in a terror attack in Algeria last month.

TOKYO – Well, that didn’t take long.  Only weeks after 10 Japanese nationals were killed in a terrorist attack in Algeria, Japan’s military is practicing how to rescue citizens at risk overseas. Now all they need is a law that allows them to do it for real.

Some 80 members of the Japan Ground Self Defense Force joined with U.S. Marines in Thailand this weekend to whisk scores of Japanese and other foreign citizens out of harm’s way in a mock evacuation drill. The soldiers learned how to secure landing zones, screen evacuees, call in Marine Corps helicopters and coordinate with other foreign troops, administrators and relief workers. The Japanese “victims” were mostly volunteers and family from the embassy in Bangkok.

The training event was part of the annual Cobra Gold exercise, which this year includes troops from the U.S., Japan, Thailand and four other countries. A dozen other nations, including China, have sent observers.

In truth, planning for the evacuation drill began last year, but it took on greater meaning for the Japanese after the slaughter in Algeria. At least 38 hostages were killed by terrorists or died in a rescue attempt by Algerian troops.

The dead include 10 Japanese – the most of any nation. According to news reports, the terrorists actively searched for Japanese nationals, who supervise much of the work at the sprawling In Amenas gas plant.

The Japanese government was heavily criticized at home for not doing more to protect its citizens there. But, really, there wasn’t much they could do.Under Japan’s restrictive Self Defense Force (SDF) Law, the government is not permitted to send troops overseas – even to evacuate citizens in emergencies  — unless it’s certain the troops themselves won’t be drawn into a fight. Call it a hangover from Japan’s militarist era. Even in the most permissive conditions, troops would be allowed to transport or evacuate Japanese nationals only by air or sea – not by land.

Survivors of four-day ordeal in Algeria were brought to the capital of Algiers in civilian vehicles and were flown home aboard a Japanese government aircraft.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is drafting legislation that would make it easier to send troops overseas, and is looking to ease restrictions on the use of weapons by SDF members, as well. Under the current interpretation of Japan’s pacifist Constitution, SDF members are largely forbidden to use their weapons unless they themselves come under direct attack.

“In Algeria, we may have been able to send a (military) unit, but when they touch the ground, they can’t do anything,” says Kunihiko Miyake, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, in Tokyo. “The most important mission of the Self Defense Forces is to protect the lives and safety of the citizens. So it is quite normal for any country, including Japan, to make it legal to do that.”

Even with a change in law, it would be years – if ever – before Japan’s ground forces could attempt a commando-like rescue operation. Only the United States, Britain, Israel and a handful of other countries have the resources to even attempt something like that, and so far no one is suggesting Japan should try to develop that kind of capability.

The scope of the training mission in Pattaya, Thailand, this weekend was more modest. It assumed that victims of an unspecified natural disaster – earthquake, tsunami or the like — were able to make their way to an airport or makeshift airfield. From there, troops from Japan, the U.S. and Thailand set up security, volunteers were registered, screened for injuries, checked for weapons or contraband. Helicopters were called in and the volunteers were flown out to Marine amphibious assault ships offshore. Over the next few days, participants will review what worked and what didn’t and will apply the lessons should the need ever arise.

This week, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to meet with President Obama in Washington. High on the agenda will be last week’s nuclear weapons test by North Korea and the repeated intrusions by Chinese surveillance ships and aircraft around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, called by Diaoyu by China.

No need for an overseas evacuation in either case. But perhaps next year Japan will take part in another drill that’s part of the Cobra Gold schedule: an amphibious assault on hostile shores.