Member of the House of Councillors Masahisa Sato became known as the “mustachioed commander” during the Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF) efforts to support Iraq’s reconstruction. He completed two overseas assignments as a JSDF official before entering the world of politics and becoming involved in national security and diplomatic issues in the upper house. Toshio Motoya spoke with Sato about topics such as how other countries perceive the JSDF, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Taiwan crisis that will likely break out in the future.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You gained renown in 2004 when you were nicknamed the “mustachioed commander” of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) group dispatched to Iraq. Was that your first overseas appointment in the JSDF?
(S) Thank you for inviting me. The JSDF was sent abroad multiple times before Iraq. My first assignment was at the Persian Gulf with the Maritime Self-Defense Force in 1991, and our task was to remove naval mines.
(M) I’ve heard that Japan has excellent minesweeping technologies.
(S) We do. The JSDF was asked to help clean up the mines, an extremely difficult operation. Today we have fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) minesweeping ships, but back then we used wooden ships.
(M) I understand that iron ships can’t be used for minesweeping due to magnetism. The United Nations Forces also asked Japan to perform minesweeping at the time of the Korean War.
(S) Japan traditionally has advanced technologies in this field. It was criticized during the Gulf War for providing money without expending any sweat or blood. That was why Japan did minesweeping work. Next, the JSDF was sent to Cambodia in 1992. A battalion was there for road development, and personnel were dispatched to observe the armistice. I was on a temporary transfer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), which assigned me to Cambodia. I had no weapons; I wore jeans and polo shirts as I gathered intelligence in rather dangerous regions like Kampong Thom and Battambang in central and northwest Cambodia.
(M) Was the civil war still going on?
(S) The UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia was established in 1992, and preparations were underway to hold a general election for creating a new constitution in 1993. However, the civil war continued and the government forces were fighting against the Pol Pot faction.
(M) In other words, there was the possibility of you being drawn into the fighting.
(S) I was planning to stay at Japanese civilian police officer housing when I visited central Cambodia. It didn’t work out, so I used a UN radio to find a safe location, which was a village more than 20 kilometers away. On the drive there we ended up right in the middle of a bridge-related gun battle between the Pol Pot and government forces. I immediately got out of the car and told my interpreter to get out, too. We stayed flat on the ground until the fighting ceased. The government troops were victorious, and they provided us with an escort to the village. The JSDF was working in Takeo, a comparatively safe location in southern Cambodia, but I had to travel around to gather information.
(M) So that’s how you found yourself in the midst of combat.
(S) Cambodian children with automatic rifles used to guard bridges during the day and demand money to cross them. It was quite frightening because they might shoot you if you offended them at all. The Pol Pot troops came down from the mountains at night to attack bridges and the government forces stood against them. The government troops were so powerful that the Pol Pot army had to resort to guerilla warfare.
(M) Did you have any further foreign appointments?
(S) I think my experience in Cambodia earned me a good reputation for overseas work. My next post was in Syria’s Golan Heights in 1996, as commander of the UN peacekeeping operations (PKO) group. I was named commander of the Japanese Iraq Reconstruction and Support Group in 2004.
(M) No JSDF members have ever been killed in combat, so I imagine that these overseas activities are fairly stressful for their commanders.
(S) Yes, JSDF troops have died during training accidents, but none have been killed while being dispatched abroad. I was extremely careful about ensuring their safety. I think the JSDF is superior to other nations’ armies for two reasons: its unity and discipline. Iraqi people praised the JSDF highly.
(M) I remember news reports saying the JSDF was protected by the Netherlands Armed Forces in Iraq.
(S) That was incorrect information. The Japanese media was in Iraq about one month after the advance group arrived. The JSDF didn’t have its own encampment at that time, so they were using the Netherlands camp and being guided around.
(M) That’s why the media claimed the JSDF was being “protected?”
(S) Yes, but if you think with a clear head, you’ll see that the Netherlands and Japan are on totally different levels in terms of defense equipment, weapons budgets, and national power. The people of Iraq said the Dutch soldiers were physically larger, but that the JSDF was the stronger force.
(M) I feel like some news reports said the JSDF didn’t have very good weapons…
(S) That wasn’t true at all; the JSDF team in Iraq had many more armored vehicles than the Netherlands. JSDF vehicles were parked in tidy lines at road development sites, and the shovels were nicely organized as well. Our rule was to position them at right angles with distances of three or fewer centimeters. The troops were well disciplined and treated the Iraqi people with great care. The JSDF’s excellence was clearly apparent in comparison to other countries.
(M) What originally led you to study at the National Defense Academy (NDA)?
(S) I didn’t choose the NDA because I was consumed with patriotism or a desire to protect Japan – I simply passed the NDA and National Defense Medical College exams when I took them as a type of practice test. I entered the Applied Physics Department because I was fond of the subject. I graduated the same year as Koji Yamazaki, who is currently the chief of staff of the JSDF Joint Staff, meaning he is Japan’s senior uniformed leader. He’s the only person from that year who is still in the JSDF. The students who talked the most about patriotism and defense ended up not having particularly good careers. The most successful JSDF personnel are cheerful, flexible, and able to absorb anything.
(M) That’s what they need to get ahead.
(S) I don’t think narrow-minded people are suited to the JSDF. Of course one’s mindset is important, but JSDF officers must fundamentally be realists. Instead of focusing on ideals, they must achieve their missions and accomplish things in the real world. While theories might have significance, they don’t mean anything unless you can execute them. In this job you have to bridge ideals and reality.
(M) In Vietnam I saw murals made by local people as records of massacres and other brutal acts committed by the South Korean army during the Vietnam War.
(S) The South Korean military was also sent to Iraq. The Japanese and South Korean forces once took a commemorative photograph together. The JSDF was in the front and the South Korean troops were behind. The South Korean soldiers held out a banner that read “Dokdo is South Korean Territory” behind our backs. When the photo was passed around, I lodged a protest with the South Korean forces. I doubt their commander ordered this act, but it wasn’t an appropriate thing to do while providing humanitarian aid with another nation.
(M) It seems like that attitude regarding Japan is a South Korean national trait.
(S) Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula were previously Japanese territories that our ancestors devoted great efforts to developing. Despite this, today one of them is pro-Japanese and one is anti-Japanese. I find that strange, since Japan did the same things in both regions.
(M) Maybe one factor is that Japan administered Taiwan for a long time, going back to the First Sino-Japanese War.
(S) If you look at the order in which imperial universities were founded, the first was Tokyo, followed by Kyoto, Tohoku, Kyushu, Hokkaido, Keijo (Seoul), and Taipei. The eighth was Osaka and the ninth was Nagoya. I think this shows how Japan treated the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan in the same way as its own mainland.
(M) Japan built numerous elementary schools and focused a great deal of effort for education on the Korean Peninsula
(S) Russia has invaded Ukraine. If China carried out a similar military invasion in Taiwan, I think Japan would utilize the Japanese-American alliance to help maintain the status quo in Taiwan. The question is what South Korea would do. Of course the United States and South Korea have a military relationship, which South Korea says is for the stability of the Korean Peninsula. But since China and South Korea also have strong economic ties, I’m not sure which side South Korea would choose if China came in conflict with Japan, the U.S., and Taiwan. The American-South Korean alliance might crumble. The people of South Korea are divided on this subject as well.
(M) Japan made great contributions to modernizing South Korea by building infrastructure and establishing an educational system. It isn’t fair that they ignore this and claim that Japan exploited Korea. I feel Korean people lack any sense of gratitude.
(S) There are many things from the era of Japanese rule that the South Korean government keeps from its people. Regarding the issue of forced labor, when the Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea was being negotiated in 1965, the South Korean side stated that it had the right to demand repayment, including unpaid wages for laborers and other compensation. Japan asked if these payments would be made to individual citizens. South Korea replied that the national government would take the money and give it to individuals. This is clearly shown in the MOFA’s records of the negotiations. Japan accordingly provided 500 million dollars to South Korea, a sum including money for the laborers. The South Korean government hasn’t informed its people that it used these funds for national recovery. In other words, the citizens should be speaking out against their own government, not about the Japanese government or corporations.
(M) I agree.
(S) Northern Korea, which was close to the Asian continent, was an industrial area. The southern part was farmland. South Korea developed its steel and shipbuilding industries using Japanese funding.
(M) Yes, Japanese money facilitated the rapid economic growth known as the Miracle on the Han River.
(S) Because it is a peninsular nation, South Korea wavers between the continent and ocean. There is a strong trend of progressive governments aligning with the continent (China), while conservative administrations are partial to powers across the ocean (Japan and the U.S.). The Moon Jae-in administration was pro-Chinese. Yoon Suk-yeol, the current president, is conservative, but does that mean he favors Japan and the U.S.? I don’t think this is a simple question, considering he won by a very narrow margin. Regardless of whether the South Korean government is conservative or progressive, Japan should convey its honest views to South Korea and tell them that the ball is in their court for improving the Japanese-South Korean relationship. Japan should stop its harmful actions of offering compromises and attempting to be friendly with South Korea. We must change our way of thinking now to avoid the condemnation of future generations.
(M) The more suggestions Japan has made, the more South Korea has demanded. Through compromise, the goal posts have been moved farther back.
(S) Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party lost the recent presidential election in South Korea. He has said things like, “Why wasn’t the aggressor nation of Japan divided up, while the invaded Korean Peninsula was separated in two?” Regular politicians wouldn’t speak like that, yet he was the presidential candidate. That shows you just how abnormal South Korea is. In Taiwan, the citizens who lived under Japanese rule are steadily dying. Conscription has been effectively ended and more people are prospering by doing business with China. Upcoming generations might have different ways of thinking, and it’s possible that Taiwan may become friendlier with China. China is planning to take advantage of this timing by having a pro-Chinese president win the 2024 election. Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected in 2020, but she faced a fierce battle at first. Her overwhelming victory was helped by the serious concern in Taiwan about what China is doing after abolishing Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” principle.
(M) She might not have won without the chaos in Hong Kong.
(S) China is paying particular attention to the plethora of fake news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s already spreading fake news in Taiwan, too. If a crisis breaks out, it’s possible that fake news might influence people in Japan. The Internet makes this easy.
(M) Wars in the Internet era are truly frightening.
(S) Russian President Vladimir Putin did terrible things during the Syrian Civil War as well. Many cruel acts took place during the four-year siege of Aleppo (Syria’s largest city), including starvation operations and massacres. The world doesn’t know about these. The atrocities in Ukraine are instantly shared with the world, and many people are saying that Russia is committing war crimes. But it did similar things in Chechnya and Syria.
(M) In addition to a lack of information, I think the world wasn’t interested enough in those matters.
(S) The Second Chechen War started in 1999, right after Putin became prime minister. The Russian forces carpet bombed and destroyed entire cities. When they were rebuilt, Russian puppets were put in top positions. People suspect that Russian forces and Bashar al-Assad government forces used chemical weapons in Syria. American President Donald Trump struck al-Assad bases for that reason in 2018. President Barack Obama warned that the U.S. would intervene if chemical weapons were employed, but he didn’t do anything even when that occurred. Trump actually acted. Dictators must be made aware that they have to pay the price for their inhuman deeds. The current President Joe Biden initially made the mistake of declaring that the U.S. would not use the right to collective defense to intervene in Ukraine because it’s not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). That’s why Putin felt safe advancing the Russian forces into Ukraine.
(M) You shouldn’t say something like that at the beginning. The enemy won’t be scared if he knows how you will react.
(S) That’s right. Outside of military intervention the only choices are economic sanctions or information warfare, but you can’t stop a war using those methods.
(M) Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which was Ukrainian territory, in 2014. Putin has done all sorts of horrible things since then.
(S) We absolutely cannot allow this. Donbas, a region in eastern Ukraine, has become an important location in this war. Russia hasn’t admitted to entering Donbas in 2014. The Russian army is the only one with T-80 tanks, but they claim these tanks just lost their way and ended up in Ukraine. That July, a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was hit by a Russian missile above Donbas. It was a terrible accident in which 300 people lost their lives, but Russia says it wasn’t involved at all. Russia also insists it had nothing to do with the many civilian corpses left on the outskirts of Kyiv during this current invasion. Going further back, the Soviet Union imprisoned 570,000 Japanese people in Siberia after World War II. About 60,000 of them died. Its true nature and cruelty haven’t changed since then. I’m concerned that young people don’t know anything about Japan’s rule of Korea or Taiwan, or about Japanese prisoners of war in Siberia, because our schools don’t sufficiently teach students about modern history. That’s why they are defeated in discussions with China and South Korea.
(M) Because South Korea abandoned the Chinese character (kanji) writing system, young people are unable to read old books or papers. They don’t know about Japan’s good administration, and they are indoctrinated in ways that benefit the government. We must tell the youth of Japan that, if Japan hadn’t fought in World War II, the globe would still be ruled by white Christians and many countries wouldn’t be independent today. I think the bushi warrior class prevented Japan from becoming a Western colony. Military power is necessary to protect the nation and maintain peace.
(S) It’s great if you never have to draw your sword, but you must always keep it sharp and ready to use. The first character in the word “武士” (bushi) means “stop your dagger-axe.” This refers to someone who can use a weapon, but who creates an environment where it is not necessary. The kanji for “命” (“inochi,” which means “life”) is written as “hit a person one time.” You can’t protect the lives of people without sufficient training and preparation.
(M) Japanese kanji has so much depth. I think it’s a wonderful and unique part of our culture.
(S) I agree entirely. That DNA passed down from our ancestors is also evident in the actions of JSDF personnel. I think Japan’s wonderful qualities are apparent to the people living in the areas where the JSDF is dispatched.
(M) I look forward to seeing what you do in the National Diet going forward. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(S) I want them to feel pride in everything they are connected to, including the nation of Japan, the region where they were born and raised, the place they live today, their company, and their family. Family in particular is the basis of society. If they do not love their family, they cannot feel affection for their company or region, and they cannot be of service to other people. First of all, I want them to cherish their family.
(M) The nation of Japan is founded on the family. Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today.
(S) Thank you.
Born in 1960 in Fukushima Prefecture. Graduated from the National Defense Academy (Applied Physics) in 1983 and joined the Japan Self-Defense Forces, starting with the Obihiro 4th Infantry Regiment. His past positions include commander of the UN PKO Golan Heights Dispatch Team and commander of the Japanese Iraq Reconstruction and Support Group. Sato was elected to the House of Councillors for the first time in 2007 and has served three continuous terms. He has been appointed parliamentary secretary for defense and senior vice-minister for foreign affairs.