Tokyo's troops tiptoe into Phnom Penh: Japan is in turmoil as its political kingmaker quits and its troops begin their first foreign mission since the war. Terry McCarthy reports

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The Independent Online
JAPAN TOOK its first, tentative step into a new era in Asia yesterday when the main body of Japanese troops arrived in Phnom Penh to take part in the United Nations peace-keeping operation in Cambodia. Few Cambodians turned out at Pochentong airport to see the Japanese arrive in the midst of a dark, tropical storm.

Instead, they were met largely by their own compatriots. Several hundred Japanese journalists, including 40 television crews, are in Cambodia to document the first overseas military operations of Japanese troops since the Second World War.

The soldiers, standing on the rainy runway in their blue UN berets, looked meek and nervous compared to the aggressive Japanese reporters, many of whom openly express their scepticism, if not outright opposition, to the military mission. These sentiments are shared by many in Japan, and at least 16 bomb and arson attacks in apparent protest at the mission were reported by Japanese police in the last two days.

But for the time being, the Japanese contingent in Cambodia is behaving in exemplary fashion, in a conscious attempt to forestall any fears at home or in the rest of Asia that their dispatch overseas could mark the beginning of a resurgent militarism.

In their base camp in Takeo, some 40 miles south of Phnom Penh, the main concern of the troops was that they could not get a decent bath. 'The water is too muddy for the filters we brought from Japan,' said Lieutenant Hiroshi Ogawa. 'This is difficult for Japanese.'

Normally punctilious about the daily Japanese bathing ritual, the men had been reduced to standing in the rain with a bottle of shampoo to soap off their sweat. During the day the temperature reaches 35C, but the troops are under orders to wear their full uniform with the blue beret while working to give a good image. 'It is very hot,' said Lt Ogawa, who had stripped down to his vest in a lunch break.

Unlike their predecessors, who raped, tortured and pillaged their way across most of East Asia 50 years ago, these men - mostly from an engineering battalion in Kyoto - are under strict instructions to be kind and friendly to the local population. They are under orders not to cause trouble nor to frequent the brothels in the towns where they are stationed. An earlier plan to issue them with condoms was scrapped after it raised an outcry in the Japanese press.

Japan has 1,800 troops, policemen and civilian administrators in Cambodia, part of the 20,000 men and women sent by the UN to try to end the war and prepare for elections next May. It took Tokyo two agonising years to agree on a law allowing troops to be sent overseas with the UN. When the law was finally passed in July, it contained severe restrictions on the duties they could perform, and particularly prohibits any involvement in an area of ongoing hostilities.

But even in its diluted form, it has been much criticised in Japan and by Japan's Asian neighbours. China and Korea, in particular, who were treated badly by Japanese occupiers earlier this century, have hit out at what they see as the beginning of a new Japanese assertiveness in the region. Heightening fears is the reduction of US military forces in Asia, with the recent closure of the Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines.

Japan, however, is determined to play a more active role in Asia, beyond its traditional 'cheque- book diplomacy'. It hopes that by scrupulously following the UN mandate its neighbours will gradually drop their reservations.

The troops themselves are aware that the eyes of Asia are following their every move - aided by those 40 camera crews. But their worries are more down to earth - hygiene, food, the danger of malaria. 'There are many flies and cows,' said Major Shoji Nakajima, who was in charge of constructing the camp in Takeo. 'This is an annoyance.'

From Takeo, the Japanese engineers will help to repair two of the main roads leading to Phnom Penh. The roads have been chosen in the safest part of Cambodia, so the Japanese will be unlikely to get involved in any outbreaks of fighting among the different Cambodian factions.

Asked what his orders were if shooting broke out, Major Nakajima said his men have been told to withdraw immediately to their camp. 'It might sound a bit strange for military men, but we must first try to evacuate. If we are pinned down, then we have to take self-defensive measures.'

The peace-keeping law forbids the Japanese troops from de-mining operations - despite the large quantity of mines that have been laid in Cambodia in the last 13 years of conflict. 'If we find mines, we have to refer to Phnom Penh for instructions,' Major Nakajima said.

(Photograph omitted)