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The International Writers Magazine
: Iraq and Japan

Can Japan Rescue the Garden of Eden?
JT Brown on the plight of the marsh arabs

Ever since two of its diplomats were ambushed and killed in Iraq this past November, Japan has been nervously marking time until news of more spilt Japanese blood reaches its shores. Now that Japanese troops have arrived on the ground in Samawah [located in southeastern Iraq] as part of the international effort to bring stability to that country, all of Japan is holding its breath, waiting for the body count to begin. The domestic media is filled with stories about the troop dispatch and all of Tokyo’s attendant political wrangling and hand-wringing. The content of editorial pages is particularly grim and pessimistic. Just as coalition troops from the U.S., the U.K., Italy, and many other nations have been targeted and killed almost daily in Iraq, it is roundly presumed here that Japanese troops will be singled out next. Furthermore, one just-conducted public opinion poll indicates that 37% of respondents are now "very concerned" about acts of terrorism occurring in Japan, while an even larger 48% say they are at least concerned to "some extent". *1 Indeed, in an Al Queda threat issued late last year, Japan was warned that "the cars of death" (the suicide car-bombings) were on their way, if Japan assisted in the ongoing effort to stabilize and reconstruct Iraq.*2

After the U.N.’s headquarters at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad was bombed last August, the U.N. pulled out of Iraq. Whether Japan too will cut and run, or hang in there for the long run, remains something to be seen. This well could be a defining moment in the shaping of Japan’s geopolitical role, going forward.
Which brings us now to the Garden of Eden, and what Japan, just possibly, may be doing to rescue it.

The biblical Garden of Eden is widely presumed to have been located in ancient Mesopotamia, or, for those of you who recall your middle school social studies, the part of the famed ‘Fertile Crescent’ wherein the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet. Direct descendants of the Sumerians and Babylonians have lived there for over 5,000 years, finding both habitat and livelihood in the vast and famous Mesopotamian marshlands.

But today in 2004, this ‘garden’ is dying - experts give a mere three to five years before the very last of it has vanished. Only 5% of the marshlands remain. Why? Some dams built upstream in both Syria and Turkey have not helped. But overwhelmingly, fingers point to Saddam Hussein, who, in one of his various campaigns of persecution against the Shiite Muslim population the southern part of his country, had the marshlands drained. His cold calculation was to render marshes barren wastelands, so as to drive from the land its indigenous people: they were considered enemies of his regime. Hussein succeeded. To quote a report on this human tragedy found on the webpage of the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, "Around one fifth of the estimated half-million Marsh Arabs are now living in refugee camps in Iran with the rest internally displaced within Iraq. A 5,000 year-old culture, heir to the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, is seriously in jeopardy of coming to an abrupt end."*3

Comes now an interesting report in the Japanese press, announcing that the Japanese government is undertaking plans to assist Iraq in rescuing the marshlands. According to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, "Japan is considering assisting the restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshlands" and "A high-ranking official in the Foreign Ministry said, ‘Contributing in the environmental area is a way for Japan to show the international community that its reconstruction support for Iraq goes beyond just the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces.’"*4

At this juncture, the insertion of a little bit of background is necessary. As I have recently reported, for a variety of reasons Japan has been trying to cast itself as "the great aid donor" in the eyes of the international community. It buys access to China’s markets and has staved off demands for war reparations by perennially being China’s largest financial aid benefactor. On the other hand, to no apparent benefit or acclaim for itself, Japan has been a very good patron and consistent friend to little and beleaguered Cambodia. The above mentioned dispatch of troops to Iraq came about for two reasons: 1) the U.S. asked Japan to help out and, for now, Japan is not prepared to rebuff the U.S., 2) the military hawks in Japan are aggressively exploiting this as an opportunity to expand the parameters of what Japan’s military can be permitted to do. [Japan’s constitution prohibits Japan from maintaining "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential" and also states "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." Heretofore at least, Japan has gotten around this ostensibly unambiguous prohibition by simply labeling their military a "self-defense force".]

Whatever Japan’s complex motives however, one has to be rooting for them to succeed in Iraq. Whether one stood for or against the effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the current effort to bring safety, stability and reconstruction to Iraq is distinctly different and cannot be aloud to fail for the most basic of humanitarian reasons. Unfortunately, it is not at all yet clear whether Japan can, and will, see it through. The very last line of the Asahi Shimbun story concludes by stating that any such efforts by Japan will first "have to await the restoration of security."
Here in Japan, I get the uneasy sense that if too many of this country’s troops start coming home in body bags -let alone if bombs start exploding in the streets of Tokyo- there is not going to be anyone left in Japan still in the mood to help out the ‘Marsh Arabs’ and their ancient homeland. But here’s hoping it never comes to that. It would be tragic. Foremostly, for the sake of a half a million ‘Marsh Arabs’ who have been displaced into refugee camps. But also for the sake of all of us. Because the Garden of Eden is a great patrimony shared by us all.

*1 The Asahi Shimbun, January 28, 2004, "Poll: 81% say public security
[for background also see:]
*4 The Asahi Shimbun, January 22, 2004, "Iraq’s wetlands in need"
© JT Brown Feb 2004
[All of JT’s previous articles are indexed at]

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