Photo/IllutrationWell-wishers see off Self-Defense Forces members leaving from Aomori Airport on Nov. 20 for deployment to South Sudan. (Shigetaka Kodama)

  • Photo/Illustraion

AOMORI--The first contingent of Self-Defense Forces members authorized to use their weapons against enemy combatants while engaged in protection and rescue operations overseas left here Nov. 20 to take part in a U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.

The advance corps of 130 or so members is expected to arrive in the South Sudan capital of Juba on Nov. 21.

They are authorized to engage in "kaketsuke-keigo" activities, which literally means "rushing (to distant places) to protect and rescue (people)," when members of peacekeeping operations or other nongovernmental organizations come under attack.

Unlike in past missions, those in the latest deployment will be allowed to fire their weapons to protect and rescue others if the need arises.

In total, 350 SDF members from units based in the northern prefectures of Aomori, Miyagi, Iwate and Akita will make up the force to take over from the one now in South Sudan. The contingent's main task is to build roads in South Sudan. The mission is expected to last for six months.

The new duties, which will take effect from Dec. 12, also allow the SDF members to conduct joint protection efforts at their base camps along with PKO troops dispatched from other nations.

As the fresh units left for South Sudan, members of the 60-strong group that had previously been dispatched started returning home on Nov. 20.

One officer who was part of the returning SDF members described the situation within the city of Juba and surrounding areas as calm.

The advance corps was seen off at Aomori Airport by family members and fellow SDF colleagues.

Some family members at the airport were clearly concerned about the heightened risk of danger due to the new duty assigned to the troops.

In this regard, opinion varied among SDF members remaining in Japan.

One officer in his 40s who has served overseas said, "It is inconceivable if SDF members could not go to help Japanese in a foreign nation who asked for help from the SDF."

However, another officer was skeptical about the government's assertion that the duty would not increase the risk faced by SDF members.

"Regardless of how much training is conducted, dangers will increase because the SDF members will confront unknown circumstances," the officer said. "I wonder if government officials are really aware of what the situation on the ground is like."

Other SDF members raised questions about whether the PKO mission in South Sudan was of any help since it has been five years since the first members were dispatched to the impoverished nation in east-central Africa.

"Many SDF members leave because they believe their work will benefit Japan," one officer said. "I hope the government will explain how the deployment to South Sudan ties into the national interest."