The last time Japanese soldiers came to Takeo they forced a future Cambodian prime
minister to climb up palm trees for coconuts and used his father and other locals
as slave labor to build an airport.
The guardians of the Land of the Rising Sun are back in Cambodia 47 years later but
this time to build bridges, literally and figuratively, as the first soldiers from
Japan ever to take part in a U.N. peace-keeping mission.
In the face of stiff parliamentary opposition the Japanese government pushed through
a constitutional amendment last year paving the way for Japanese troops to serve
overseas for the first time since the Imperial Army surrendered to the Allies in
August 1945 at the end of World War II.
Countries which suffered at the hands of the Japanese over history have voiced concern
at a resurrection of Japanese militarism and there has been opposition in Tokyo and
a small protest by Japanese in Phnom Penh when the first Japanese officers arrived
in Cambodia on Sept. 18.
But the members of Japan's Self Defence Forces are a different breed from their 1940s-era
predecessors and are aware that the world is monitoring their every step.
"I want them to come here and watch our operations, and they will understand
this is a very useful activity," said Captain Kenta Yamashita, information officer
for the 600-strong engineering force.
The Japanese have pulled out all the stops to ensure that their mission will not
only prove beneficial, but also be as comfortable and trouble-free as possible.
Their main task will be to repair bridges and battered sections along the heavily
used Highway 3, which links the capital to the busy river port of Kampot.
The engineers, mostly from the central Japanese city of Itami, are also busy transforming
their moonscape camp site into a proper base.
Japanese navy vessels have brought in a mountain of supplies and equipment, including
about 300 vehicles-trucks, four-wheel drives, armored bulldozers, earth movers, and
The ships also bring in food, water and other supplies to make the men feel a bit
closer to home as they sweat under the searing dry season sun in their tented base
camp, which lacks air-conditioning.
"We carry everything-rice meat and vegetables," Capt. Yamashita said, adding
that the supplies were driven from the key southern port of Sihanoukville to Takeo
via Phnom Penh.
Many of the imported goods are offered in a commissary tent, where officers and men
alike can offload some of their daily U.N. allowance of slightly more than U.S. $100
and watch videos in the evening.
Vending machines accept yen coins before dispensing ice-cold cans of Japanese beer
and soft drinks, while the shop also offers subsidized whisky and sake, cigarettes,
snacks, magazines, books, newspapers, toiletries, batteries, and even multi-colored
The customer hands over a "prepaid card" worth 10,000 yen and the teller
passes it under the electronic eye, taps in the value of the purchases and the amount
is deducted from the card.
The soldiers also use plastic to pay for calls to their folks back home via a portable
satellite dish but the regular postal service comes free of charge.
"I ring my family once a month-one call is maybe 3,000 yen (U.S. $25),"
said Sergeant First Class, Yasuhiro Kosuji, from Kyoto.
Chefs prepare tasty favorites using bottled water and even the dishes are washed
with imported water to ensure hygiene. The contingent has a small but well-equipped
medical team to take care of health problems.
Sexually transmitted diseases, however, are unlikely to be a major problem as the
Japanese have laid down strict codes of conduct and moved to eradicate temptation
by imposing a curfew.
"There is a small bar just outside the camp gates-we are allowed to go there
but we cannot go into Takeo and we have to come back before 9 p.m.," Capt. Yamashita
The bar is popular, as the imported beer on sale is much cheaper than the subsidized
brews from home.
Personnel Officer Captain Ryoji Takayama explained that the curfew was necessary
to ensure that the men got to their bunk beds in time for roll call purposes.
The contingent's interpreter, Private Shihen Watanabe, is half Cambodian and half
Japanese. His Japanese father met and married a young Cambodian woman when he was
helping construct the major bridge spanning the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh during
The 27-year-old private and his mother survived the Khmer Rouge years during the
late 1970s, but his father later perished during the reign of terror.
Watanabe later escaped to Thailand, and immigrated to Japan to study.
"I never thought that I would come back in this manner, as a soldier. I had
big emotions coming back," he said, describing the reunion with his mother for
the first time in seven years.
The Phnom Penh-born trooper noticed that "the situation is much better than
the Pol Pot times, but still the Cambodian people are not free to discuss politics."
Watanabe and his colleagues are eager to give Cambodians a good impression of the
Japanese even though access to the local population is limited.
"The unit has been collecting used aluminium cans which will be sold and the
money used to buy blackboards and pencils for presentation to local schools,"
Capt. Takayama said.
His colleague, Capt. Yamashita, added: "On the way to our daily bath we stop
off in town to stock up on beers and get a chance to talk to the Cambodian people.
"The Cambodian people have a very good impression towards us as far as I'm concerned,"
But some bitterness remains among Cambodians old enough to remember the troops of
the Imperial Army during their occupation of a town which was used decades later
as a base by one of the Khmer Rouge's most-feared leaders-Ta Mok.
Pen Sovann, who helped organize Cambodian resistance to the Khmer Rouge and became
the first prime minister of the country after the Vietnamese toppled Pol Pot's regime
in 1979, is one.
"[During World War II] the Japanese built an airport in Takeo and they captured
my father to be a worker," he said, adding that his father died from the ill-treatment
"They forced Cambodian people to destroy their crops and forced people to plant
what they needed. The Japanese forced me to climb coconut trees," recalled Pen,
who only returned to Takeo in January after 10 years under house arrest near Hanoi
on charges of betraying Communism.
"I have asked Japanese journalists to tell their government: please don't let
the former Japanese behavior reoccur here," he said