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Stars and Stripes May 9, 2005

Japan is new player at Cobra Gold

Training with foreign militaries a big step for Self-Defense Force

By Erik Slavin

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — As the Japanese government deliberates whether to change its constitution to allow a full-fledged military, its Self-Defense Force is increasing its profile among the military community.

For the first time, the Japanese force is participating in Cobra Gold, which is taking place throughout Thailand until Friday. They join thousands of U.S. and Thai servicemembers, along with a small Singaporean contingent as the only participants. Germany, Australia, the United Nations and much of Asia are among the nations that send observers to Cobra Gold, just as the Japanese have done since 2001.

“I think this participation in Cobra Gold for the first time has a very, very significant meaning for us,” said Col. Hidejiro Homatsu. “We’re going to do our best to have our training be as fruitful as possible.”

Japan has about 25 Self-Defense Force personnel participating in Cobra Gold, according to the Japan Defense Agency. They participated in the tsunami relief workshop from May 2-6, and also will be involved in the upcoming high-level staff exercise.

“We had been discussing the possibility of participation in terms of purpose since the focus on disaster relief was announced,” Homatsu said. “We have the capability to provide support in case of a disaster.”

Indeed, Japan has the sheer numbers to assist in relief response. While not officially a military, the Japanese Self-Defense Force is nearly 240,000 strong and has an annual budget of $50 billion, according to GlobalSecurity.org.

The Self-Defense Force may protect its own borders or participate in humanitarian missions, but Japan‘s constitution forbids it from offensive operations.

There are also differences between Self-Defense Force personnel and traditional military servicemembers. Personnel are classified as “special civil servants,” and are subject to the same justice system as civilians.

Homatsu thinks this distinction will not last long, as Japan considers whether to change its constitution.

“I think the status is going to be changed in the future … because expectations in Japan are changing,” Homatsu said.

If that happens, Japan has already begun laying the groundwork for cooperation with the world community. Homatsu said he’s focusing on coordination with civilian and nongovernmental relief organizations at Cobra Gold 2005, but also on multinational military connections, he said.

“I agree that it is very important to create professional relationships, and that is why it is important to participate in training exercises like this,” Homatsu said.

Copyright 2005, Stars and Stripes