The last Japanese troops returned home from Iraq yesterday, bringing an end to the pacifist nation's most significant military operation since World War II.
Family members waved Japanese flags and applauded as 42 soldiers returned by bus to the Somahara Base in Gunma Prefecture northwest of Tokyo.
"We are proud of the humble work we achieved in Iraq that contributed to reconstruction efforts there," Lieutenant Colonel Takayuki Mishima, 46, said as he arrived.
Mishima's unit was among the 280 ground troops who flew into Tokyo early yesterday on a chartered plane, bringing to a close the mission that at its height comprised 600 soldiers.
Fighting under way
The mission marked the first time since the end of World War II that Japanese troops went to a country where fighting was under way.
The troops -- who suffered no casualties and never fired their weapons -- helped reconstruct the relatively peaceful southern province of Muthanna, building water supply facilities and providing medical assistance.
"I'm relieved to see his face in front of me," said Terumi Homa, 23, as she greeted her husband Koei.
"Whenever I heard news of mortars near their station, I worried terribly," she said.
The landmark mission was widely seen as a way for Japan to prove itself to be more than just a purely an economic power.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a close friend of US President George W. Bush, went ahead with the deployment despite domestic opposition.
"I'm glad to see everybody come back safely. The mission was highly praised by Iraq and the world. I would like them to work hard in the future by using this experience," Koizumi told reporters in Tokyo.
Koizumi has sought to break more post-World War II taboos by proposing to revise the country's US-imposed 1947 Constitution to recognize that Japan has a military -- now euphemistically named the Self-Defense Forces.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, a conservative who is the front-runner to succeed Koizumi in September, hailed the success of the Iraq mission.
"We will firmly contribute to activities by the international community to support the Iraqi people's effort in the reconstruction of Iraq," Abe said.
The Japanese mission based in Muthanna's capital of Samawa relied on British, Australian and Dutch troops for protection because the Japanese troops were barred from using force.
"I myself never went outside of the station in Samawa but I heard from those who did that their assignments required close attention," Mishima said.
"They were nervous, which is different from during their assignments in Japan," he said.
Japan learned a bitter lesson from the US-led Gulf War in 1991, when it came in for heavy international criticism for not sending personnel despite paying US$13.5 billion, or 20 percent, of the coalition's bill.
Japan has since expanded its military role, taking part in UN forces in Cambodia and East Timor and dispatching a 1,000-strong force -- its largest since World War II -- to Indonesia and Thailand after the 2004 tsunami disaster.
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