When Japanese soldiers crossed over into Iraq Monday, it marked the first time the nation's troops entered a combat zone since World War II.
But the send-off for this 40-person advance team was not the splashy news event one might have expected. Television coverage was mostly limited to file footage and bland announcements of equipment details by officials.
The initial low-key coverage partly reflects the Japanese public's ambivalence over the deployment, which the government has linked to larger goals of moving the nation from pacifism toward an embrace of military commitments. Alluding to stinging international criticism of "checkbook diplomacy" during the first Gulf War, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Monday, "We won't have fulfilled our responsibility as a member of the international community if we contribute materially and leave the manpower contribution up to other countries."
But while Mr. Koizumi presses his Iraq case, the Defense Agency is working to mute media coverage of the deployment by asking Japanese journalists to leave Iraq.
The Japan Defense Agency last week asked that all Japanese media "depart immediately from Iraq and give serious consideration whether or not to travel to Kuwait."
Analysts see the clampdown as a threat to recent reform efforts by a press corps hampered by tight controls on information. The government's request would force the Japanese media to rely on foreign news sources - a habit that Japanese journalists are striving to break, says Susan Kreifels, a media expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii. Japanese journalists are growing increasingly committed to sourcing their own work and recognizing the right to freedom of speech, she says.
So far, the Japanese press in Iraq appear to be staying. Reuters reported that about 100 Japanese journalists arrived in Samawah in advance of the soldiers.
"As a focus point of international developments, Japanese are extremely interested in events in Iraq, and we plan to continue reporting from there," said a spokesman for the Asahi Shimbun, a major daily with a half dozen journalists in the war-torn country. Another major daily, the Mainichi Shimbun, said "we plan to keep our two correspondents in Iraq" regardless of the agency's request.
The Defense Agency had backed up its request by threatening a total blackout if any problems arise. "If the media are deemed an obstacle to the smooth implementation of the mission's tasks... we will refuse all coverage," the agency said in a statement.
Last year, the government was forced by pressure from local media organizations to amend a series of bills concerning personal information that, if passed in their original form, could have infringed press freedoms.
"There has always been concern that Japanese journalists rely too much on government sources - but that goes for journalists everywhere," says Kreifels.
Worried about possible negative publicity about the mission from family of SDF personnel, the Defense Agency has also declared them off-limits to the press on grounds of possible violations of privacy.
"We need to consider the feelings of the families," said Takeya Takahashi, a Defense Agency spokesman. "We won't allow family members to speak with the media, be they foreign or local," he said.
The agency has cited security concerns as the major reason for the strict measures. A threat of terrorist attacks against Japan by the Al Qaeda network came as Tokyo late last year deliberated the timing of the troop dispatch. But the strict controls contrast sharply with the US decision to embed reporters with troops in the field.
Indications suggest the crackdown won't ease anytime soon. The agency also announced a plan to halt regular press conferences of the top commanders of the air, sea, and land forces. When reporters assigned to the Defense Agency objected to the plan, a top official on Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba's staff offered to discuss the issue, but added he only aimed to resolve it by the end of the month.
Japan already has a spotty record concerning press freedoms. The system of exclusive press clubs in Japan has been criticized by foreign governments as hampering the free flow of information by allowing local and national officials to suppress news unfavorable to them. In addition, Japanese press clubs don't admit foreign journalists.
The media rights advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranked Japan 44th in its world press freedom survey last year.
Mr. Koizumi last year pushed hard for the troop dispatch as part of his campaign to raise Japan's military profile internationally, despite a limited mandate for the move and questions over whether it involves Japan in an illegal occupation that breaches the country's war-renouncing constitution.
The advance team will set up camp in the relatively peaceful southern town of Samawah, in anticipation of the arrival of the main force of up to 600 soldiers. The full contingent, expected to arrive by March, will carry out reconstruction tasks.
Before Koizumi announced his decision in December to send the SDF to Iraq, polls showed public opposition to a dispatch as high as 88 percent. But a survey last week by a major satellite TV broadcaster showed for the first time that the number of people who support sending troops had surpassed those who oppose the dispatch - 49 percent agreed with the move while 46 percent disagreed. Other polls over the weekend showed opponents still outnumbering supporters by a slight margin.
Exactly what kind of information beyond government-endorsed releases will emerge remains an open question. As the Iraq issue is clearly of such importance to Japan and the world, "I think most Japanese would want their own news sources," Ms. Kreifels says.