Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.05.18

Evacuating citizens from war zones differs from country to country

Japan has very different ideas how to evacuate its nationals from war zones

the Japan Times on April 27th, 2023

International Politics/Diplomacy

U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously told the American people in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

More than 60 years later, and after Sudan descended into violence and chaos — forcing the evacuation of civilians of many nationalities recently — I was reminded that the Japanese still ask what Japan can do for them.

The Japanese government has responded swiftly to the current events. The editorial of the Mainichi Shimbun, which usually takes a critical stance on the government and its actions, commented, “We are relieved that they were able to evacuate safely. The rescue operation proceeded without major confusion.” It is quite remarkable that the Mainichi no longer criticizes the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces units to a foreign country.

The conservative Sankei Shimbun went so far as to praise “the hard work of the embassy and the Self-Defense Forces, which organized a joint task force to carry out the mission in the dangerous region.” Having spent much time working and living in the Middle East, I feel as if I were literally in a whole new world. Nevertheless, there are notable differences in each nation’s operations that should be noted.

Differing military responses

I have bitter memories of the evacuation of Japanese citizens in the Middle East. When the Iran-Iraq War broke out on Sept. 22, 1980, I was in Kuwait and helped over a 1,000 Japanese evacuees who crossed the Iraqi border to return home. At the time, faced with strong opposition in Japan, evacuation of Japanese nationals using the Self-Defense Forces was out of the question.

The first time the Japanese government used the SDF to evacuate its own citizens in the event of a conflict was in April 2004, when it dispatched a C-130H aircraft to transport 10 Japanese nationals from Iraq to Kuwait.

Since then, SDF aircraft have been used to transport Japanese nationals caught in dangerous situations several times and no one now objects to the deployment of noncombat SDF units in evacuating Japanese citizens abroad.

Embassy evacuation first

What was surprising this time was that on April 22, the U.S. government used special operations forces to evacuate its embassy staff and their family members. At the time, a senior U.S. government official stated in a press briefing, “As a result of the intensity of the conflict … we reluctantly decided it was time to suspend operations; and we evacuated all of the U.S. personnel and dependents assigned to Embassy Khartoum.”

When it comes to civilian evacuations, however, the senior official stated, “ As a result of that uncertain security picture, as a result of the unavailability of the civilian airport, we don’t foresee coordinating a U.S. government evacuation for our fellow citizens in Sudan at this time or in the coming days.”

In short, Washington, in the utilization of its military, prioritized the evacuation of embassy personnel while ordinary U.S. citizens had to evacuate on their own and “at their own risk,” at least for the time being. If a Japanese government official had stated the same policy, that official would probably lose his or her job immediately.

In Japan, it is taken for granted that the government will go to the aid of its civilians abroad. So, if embassy officials, who are supposed to help ordinary Japanese overseas, evacuate first before all others after a conflict erupts or during a dangerous situation, he or she may be accused of “fleeing the country” or “abdicating responsibility.”

In fact, while I was stationed in Baghdad from 1982 to 1984 at the height of the Iran-Iraq War, even if fighting intensified, I was determined that I would stay until all Japanese civilians were evacuated from the conflict zone.

Foreign ministries

Is the U.S. government cold-hearted to the plight of U.S. civilians? The U.S. government’s logic is that it has consistently prohibited its own citizens from traveling to Sudan.

That said, does that absolve it of the obligation to help protect its own civilians? Of course it doesn’t. And the question remains why the United States evacuated its embassy personnel first.

I do not believe that the differences between the United States and Japan are fundamental. In the U.S. government, the responsibility for protecting American citizens abroad is divided between diplomats and the military, which may mean that when fighting escalates, it is no longer the job for unarmed diplomats, but instead for the military.

In contrast, there is still a strong tendency in Japan to not allow its armed forces to protect its citizens when overseas — something that reminds one of the remorseful prewar days. The protection of Japanese nationals in foreign countries is basically the role of diplomats who naturally stay in the conflict zone until all civilians are evacuated. This is the reality in Japan.

Danger alerts

The U.S. government’s new travel advisory for Sudan recommends the following:

  • If you decide to travel to Sudan: Have a personal emergency action plan that does not rely on U.S. government assistance.
  • Review your personal security plan and visit our page on travel to high-risk areas, etc.

Those are understandable, but the following are beyond what officials in Tokyo could ever imagine:

  • Draft a will and designate appropriate insurance beneficiaries and/or power of attorney.
  • Discuss a plan with loved ones regarding care/custody of children, pets, property, belongings, nonliquid assets (collections, artwork, etc.), funeral wishes, etc.

The Japanese government’s travel information would never include such information. In Japan, everything is written on the assumption that you will return home alive while the U.S. advisory is based on the assumption that you may lose your life.

If a Japanese travel advisory refers to “drafting a will” or “discussing funeral wishes,” that is when Japan at last becomes a “normal” country.