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Japanese Building Bridges With Locals

Japanese Building Bridges With Locals

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

cranes.

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

hula hoops.

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

noted.

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 1960s.

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,"

he said.

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

meted out.

"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

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