New Japanese soldiers struggle in French Foreign Legion

FOCUS: New Japanese soldiers struggle in French Foreign Legion

DJIBOUTI, Feb. 14 Kyodo

Two Japanese, Takeo Oshiro, 22, and Shingo Haebaru, 24, have been with the French Foreign Legion for about one year and began working in the East African country of Djibouti two months ago.

Oshiro, who was a job-hopping part-time worker back home in Japan, said, ”I did not want to live among dead-looking people in Japan.” Haebaru, a former security guard, said, ”I wanted to live an interesting life.”

The soldiers’ names are not their own and were given to them by an experienced Japanese member of the legion. It is the custom in the force for new soldiers to be given new names.

Oshiro and Haebaru find the French used by their supervisor hard to understand and they do not get on with some of their colleagues in the legion, whose members are drawn from many nations. But the two are confident about their jobs.

”Did you see a mine?” Sgt. Masaki Takamura, 26, shouted from the hatch of an armored car to his men. Takamura then ordered the driver of the vehicle to ”advance 5 meters.”

French military forces are stationed in the country based on a defense agreement between the Islamic state and its former colonial ruler. A fresh recruit stationed in France is paid about 1,000 euros (about 160,000 yen) a month, but is paid three times that rate during the four-month tour in Djibouti.

The Arabian Peninsula faces Djibouti across the sea, and the U.S. military has had a base in the African country since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

On this day, the legion was carrying out a mine-removing drill assuming enemy forces had planted mines near the airport. Clad in green camouflage, Haebaru operated a mine detector on orange-colored dry ground on the orders of Takamura.

Takamura began his career in the legion under the new name of Totori Inagaki, but after one year, he was allowed to apply to recover his real name.

Beyond barbed wire nearby, a white man, who appeared to be a U.S. soldier, was seen jogging with his upper body naked, a scene that created a lull in the tense atmosphere. But Haebaru did not ease up and continued to look for mines under the ground.

The mine-removing team is made up of eight men, including Takamura and Haebaru. Other soldiers are from China and Slovakia. Noticing a Japanese reporter and a Chinese soldier, a black soldier from Cameroon said, ”China and Japan are not getting on well, are they?”

Qu Jingdong, 28, a former illegal immigrant from China who joined the foreign legion to get permission to stay in France, said, ”The bad relations have been caused by a group of islands,” in reference to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, claimed by China as the Daoyutai.

Takamura took over the conversation, saying, ”Individual friendship has nothing to do with problems between states. This is what is good in the foreign legion.” But this is an army. It can never be a friendly society.

Supervisors often issue unreasonable orders, and soldiers who cannot understand the orders are made to do push-ups. In drills, some soldiers are injured.

An African soldier said there is also racial discrimination in the legion. There is a language barrier for Japanese soldiers.

Col. Thierry Marchand, who leads the foreign legion stationed in Djibouti, said the virtue of Japanese soldiers is their earnestness, but their weak point is their lack of French proficiency.

Oshiro enjoys playing on a portable game machine in the barracks. Haebaru is small but a big eater. They are also struggling with the French language. Oshiro, who is one of the rare soldiers who wears glasses in the legion, said, ”I might stand out. I always get mocked and want to cry.”

Soldiers sign on for five years. There are quite a few who cannot endure the life and escape, but Oshiro said he is trying to be promoted to an officer. For that, he thinks it better to get French nationality.

His affection for Japan is limited. This is in sharp contrast with Haebaru, who puts pictures of his family up on his locker and says, ”I now understand what a happy place I was in Japan.”

Oshiro, who was raised in a fatherless family and is not on good terms with his mother, has not told her about his joining the legion. After graduating from senior high school, he worked at several places as a part-timer but has no close friends.

He voiced criticism of a former classmate, saying, ”Now that he has taken the trouble to advance to university, he is always playing.” He also said, ”There are many young people in Japan who do nothing although they have the ability to do something.”

If Haebaru’s motive for joining the legion was to have an adventure and find out about life, Oshiro’s purpose may have been to make a fresh start.

An eloquent Oshiro said, ”Be willing to endure hardship. This is a saying I hate, but now, I cannot go on without this. I would like to become important as quickly as possible and enjoy a happy life.”

The French Foreign Legion was inaugurated in 1831 as a regular part of the French military and is made up of about 7,700 soldiers from 135 countries, including slightly fewer than 50 from Japan.

They are mostly from central and eastern Europe, and there are a few from industrialized countries. Akihiko Saito, affiliated with a British security company who died in Iraq in 2005, belonged to the foreign legion for about 20 years.

Qu, the soldier from China, said, ”As a motive to join the legion, Japanese say ‘adventure and not money.’ Well then, I would like to ask them whether they would have come here even with no salary.”

The ”adventure” sought by the Japanese seems to irritate Qu, who has experienced the hardships of being an illegal immigrant.

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