Photo/IllutrationGen. Hajime Massaki, center left, chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defense Force, holds up a sign for the Samawah camp to be used by the GSDF in Iraq. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

At the beginning of the week, Japanese Twitter users were caught by surprise when the recently discovered logs of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force dispatched to Iraq for a reconstruction support mission from 2004 were posted online. They revealed the breezy, daily lives of the troops in between times of conflict as recorded in the logs.

The revelation of the discovery of some of the lost Iraqi logs and never-before-reported incidents of SDF troops coming under fire and attacks by roadside bombs--despite the fact that they were supposedly assigned to "noncombat zones" in Iraq--fueled criticism against the Japanese government.

However, among the Twitter community, the frank diaries of officers’ everyday lives have gone viral as an intriguing read, and some have even requested they be published in book form.

The Defense Ministry on April 16 released the logs, which total about 15,000 pages, reporting mainly the activities of troops stationed in Samawah, southern Iraq, for rebuilding efforts between 2004 and 2006, after the Iraq War ended in 2003.

The diaries that attracted attention were a smaller part of the daily logs. They were written by a number of SDF officers, whose names were not disclosed by the ministry, who were sent to stay in Baghdad in the north of Samawah and Basra in the southeast as liaisons, and often recorded their exchanges with multinational forces and local Iraqis.

In this article, some entries from the final months of the SDF’s rebuilding effort were translated from Japanese along with some abbreviations that do not change the meaning of the paragraphs. Words redacted by the ministry are marked with an XXX.

***************

Basra Diary: Dec. 8, 2005

I was stopped by a couple of Romanians when I was walking through Division Headquarters, who asked, “You must know karate.” I answered “No,” then they said, “I thought all Japanese know karate, but it is not like that?” They also asked, “Everyone learns ‘bushido,’ right?” At the end of our conversation, one of them said he can “count from 1 to 10 in Japanese.” This was surprisingly perfect.

Today was the anniversary of the day the Greater East Asia War [the Pacific War] started. I did not have the courage to mention that to Americans or British ... But, I would like to ask them about it when I have the opportunity.

*****

Baghdad Diary: Jan. 21, 2006

When I first saw Iraqi soldiers, I was a little scared of them. There were 30 to 40 of them who were gathered in a parking lot. When I passed by, they all stared at me. After glaring at each other for a while, I greeted them, “As-salamu alaykum,” as I could not stand the silence any longer. Then, they crowded around me all at once while saying things like, “Japanese, good,” and “Samawah.” I was frightened, but I also felt they were generally pleased to see a Japanese.

*****

Basra Diary: May 21, 2006

Further danger awaits at the smoking corner that becomes so hot during the daytime as if it were a torture chamber. Britain is supposedly a nation of gentlemen, but they are not so well-mannered here, and they open windows to splash leftover coffee and water [to the courtyard]. Standing under the windows in search of shade is very dangerous. Even here, smokers get the cold shoulder. Even if I catch the gaze of people throwing out drinks, they look unconcerned and unashamed. The pebbles are laid out in the courtyard, and the patch below the window is dyed in the color of coffee.

*****

Basra Diary: June 1, 2006

When I returned to the accommodation container at about 24:15, a certain captain was sitting cross-legged on his bed with a serious expression and holding a mop in his hand. “There was an intrusion,” he said. What! I asked him if a burglary occurred in such a place where only people related to the military are staying, but he said, “A rat intruded.” “Are you possibly scared of a rat?” “If I must say so, I am.” If I remember correctly, he, the other day, wrote in the Basra Diary that what he is now most scared of are “Rockets, thunder, ‘hancho’ [squad leader] and “senpai” [senior officers].” Rats were not even in the top four.

*****

Baghdad Diary: June. 21, 2006

U.S. Army Col. XXX [redacted], who is a Nikkei, talked to me in the cafeteria yesterday. He said he represented the United States in judo in the under 65-kilogram division in the Los Angeles Olympic Games. He had served as a liaison officer of the U.S. Army at the Headquarters of the JGSDF's Northern Army, and had a drinking companion who is a great judoka. He said the man should have become a divisional commander, (and not recalling his name) asked me to name people I knew. He added, “His hair is barcoded [combed in stripes across a bald head]!” (as he said it) Without a moment’s hesitation, I answered “XXX senpai!” (sorry) He said, “That is correct!”

***************

These were some of the “feel-good” stories from the documents released at this time. In those, only the names of individuals were redacted. However, the overall logs often contained pages that were mostly masked in black.

One intriguing log is the day before former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced the withdrawal of the GSDF from Iraq in 2006.

In the log of June 19, 2006, the lower half of a page below a subheading of “About indirect fire at XXX on June 19” was redacted.

A map of the “situation of incidents and other issues” in the upper half shows there was “no incident” on the day in Al Muthanna province, where Samawah is located, but in neighboring Basra province, where Basra is located, two incidents involving “indirect firing at multinational forces” and “no damage” were marked.

The redacted portion below may have contained the details of the indirect firing, a method of shelling a target behind an obstacle. In these cases, trench mortars may have been used.

How did the officers stationed in Basra feel about the incident? The log of the day contains the Baghdad Diary, but the Basra Diary is nowhere to be found.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has explained that the ministry will not release information that “infringes on the privacy of individuals or information gained from foreign nations and that would affect the operations of the SDF.”

Onodera seems intent on keeping some things secret, as the number of daily logs released April 16 was less than half of the entire days the GSDF was stationed in Iraq.

What they base on deciding to release or not release “secret information” from the Iraqi mission, which ended 12 years ago, remains unclear.

Moreover, these logs were supposed to be missing, as former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada reported to the Diet in February 2017 after being asked by an opposition Diet member. But the logs surfaced recently when Onodera ordered a thorough search.

It was made more confusing as it turned out the GSDF had found the logs while Inada was still in her former position, but it did not report finding them to her.

The positive reception on the Baghdad and Basra diaries from Twitter users may be a good example of how the disclosure of official documents can narrow the distance between the government and the people.

The Defense Ministry and the SDF have long been criticized for being overly secretive and concealing everything. They should learn from this episode, and work on further disclosure of official documents and the improvement of official archive management to do so.