Nerve agent attack in Japan brings to light a secret weapon: the army

March 25, 1995|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- When police responded to the nerve agent attack in the Tokyo subway system, they called in perhaps the most nearly invisible branch of the Japanese government -- the army, better known here as the Self-Defense Force.

It is a 225,000-member army in a country that officially does not have one, a military that many Japanese had never previously encountered. On this occasion it provided gas masks, protective clothing and equipment for detecting and detoxifying the nerve agent.

Polls show that more than a third of the people surveyed know almost nothing about the military. Before becoming its supreme commander last summer, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama had suggested that the Self-Defense Force was unconstitutional and should be disbanded.

After January's earthquake in Kobe, the military at first did nothing despite having mobile hospital units and advanced rescue gear. But in the nerve agent attack, the military acted even before it was called upon by Tokyo's governor.

Since World War II, Japan's military has been sensitive about appearing aggressive or, in fact, appearing at all. Residents of Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, the part of Japan closest to Russia, were the only people ever likely to see a soldier in uniform.

Officers at the headquarters in Tokyo wear sober gray suits and raincoats, and carry the fabric and leather briefcases of corporate employees. At the scattered bases, soldiers usually wear street clothes as soon they pass outside the fence.

"It's strange and crazy, and very sad. Of course, if they were proud of their role, they would wear their uniforms," said Raisuke Miyawaki, an authority on security issues who has worked with the National Police Agency and the Self-Defense Force.

In the 1930s, when Mr. Miyawaki was a child, soldiers were visible marching through Japanese cities. But the disasters of World War II left a deep distaste for soldiers. "Japanese people don't want to see military forces on the street," he said.

Japan's constitution -- written by Americans after World War II -- bans the creation of an army or a navy. But after imposing those conditions, Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur, head of the Allied occupation of Japan, had second thoughts and ordered the creation of a "National Police Reserve." As intended, it evolved into an army, but efforts to use it were deeply unpopular.

But this week may have marked a change in sentiment.

The Self-Defense Force was deluged with criticism for not playing a decisive role in the Kobe earthquake, said Mitsuya Goto, its public relations officer. After Monday's response to the subway terrorism, the military is being deluged with praise.

"There is no one else to do what they did," said Kenta Futamura, a businessman about to board the subway last night. "I think they should be more and more involved."

"I don't know enough about them to make a judgment on them," said Kazu Takahashi, a young office worker at the same subway station. "But since they exist, why not use them?" Meanwhile, as police seized more chemicals from a secretive religious sect yesterday the group's leader denied making the agent that was used in the fatal attack, the Associate Press reported. The cult's missing leader said in a videotape that the chemicals were used for making plastic, ceramics and pesticides.

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