Japanese Volunteer Soldier Formerly in the Self-Defense Forces Speaks Out: “Why I Fight Russia
Photo reportage On the front lines of eastern Ukraine
A unit named the “Ninja Platoon” engaged in battle.
Fighting back with rifles against enemy soldiers who attacked with ample equipment
While I was studying abroad, Russia invaded Ukraine. At first I watched from the sidelines, but many of my classmates went to Ukraine as volunteer soldiers. My friends living inside Russia also participated in anti-war demonstrations. Having had military training as a self-defense officer, I felt that I, too, had to do something for Ukraine.”
It was March 12 when Hiroki Yamada (pseudonym) crossed the border into Ukraine by land. First, he registered as a volunteer soldier at a recruiting station for foreign troops near the border and was assigned to a base in Yavoriu in the western part of the country. Here, volunteer soldiers of various nationalities, mainly from Western countries, but also from South America and Asia, had gathered. On the night of their assignment, they were informed that they would be training for a nighttime air raid.
I heard explosions and saw glass breaking, so I thought to myself, ‘The Ukrainian military training is very serious. But then I saw a flurry of activity around me, and when about 30 missiles landed on the base, I thought, ‘It’s a real attack! ‘ and I panicked and fled the building. At that time, I saw many people killed or had their arms torn off.”
Although the actual missile attack frightened many volunteer soldiers into running away, Yamada says that he was strangely unafraid of the attack. He remained with his unit and was assigned to the front lines in the east.
Some of the volunteer soldiers joined just like it was a game, and they didn’t last long,” he said. There was a lot of artillery fire here, and former U.S. Army soldiers would return home after losing confidence in a battle they had never experienced before. Only those who really wanted to help Ukraine remained.”
On April 24, Yamada was assigned the task of scouting and sniping enemy positions and was deployed to the heavily contested village of Morodova in the eastern Halkiu Oblast. Against the abundant weaponry of Russian howitzers and mortars, Yamada and his men fought with only rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers at best.
The Russians surrounded us from the start and attacked us one after the other,” Yamada said. Our unit had to retreat, and three of us, including myself, fought to the end to cover the retreat. In such a critical situation, for some reason “mapo doufu” came to mind, and that was all I could think about.
That must have been an unusual state of mind. The bombardment from the Russians was beyond imagination, and Yamada and his team hid in a trench they dug in the ground.
When I was in the Self-Defense Forces,” Yamada said, “I thought, ‘How can such outdated training be useful in actual combat?’ I wondered, “How can such outdated training be useful in a real war? But this war was not a war against terrorism like Afghanistan or Iraq, but rather a warfare style that was like that during World War II, centered on bombardment between regular forces. So my training in the IDF, such as building positions, came in handy.”
Yamada says he sniped a Russian soldier with a rifle provided by the Ukrainian military. Unlike shelling from a distance, he used a scope to visually see his opponent’s face and pull the trigger of his rifle. I wonder how he felt about this, and whether he felt any conflict in killing Russians, even if it was to save Ukrainians.
The Secret Story of the Creation of the “Ninja Platoon
The “Ninja Platoon” was created to help the Ukrainians. “Even though they were our enemies, they had parents and friends, and had lived many different lives, and a single bullet could take their lives. The same is true for the enemy, and we are aware that they know this and are attacking us. I don’t think we should think morally about killing the enemy on the battlefield.”
Later, Japanese volunteer soldiers began to join the foreign contingent, and Mr. Yamada suggested to the platoon commander that the unit be named “Ninja” for publicity purposes, which was accepted. They are fighting on the front lines in the eastern part of Halkiu Oblast.
Mr. Yamada left Ukraine once in late May for graduation procedures at his study abroad destination, but soon returned to the front lines. Around that time, he received a job offer from a private company doing business in the EU.
I decided to take the job because there was no one else qualified for the job and if I turned down the offer, 30 Ukrainian refugees would lose their jobs. Now I have left the front line, but I keep in close contact with the foreign contingent. I support the Ninja Platoon by providing personal assistance to make up for the lack of personal equipment and operational expenses, and by organizing fundraising events.”
Yamada, who started working for a private company in mid-August, continues to work with Ukrainian refugees in the EU.
According to Yamada, his monthly salary as a volunteer soldier is equivalent to that of the Ukrainian regular army, which is about 30,000 Japanese yen for rear duty, but 400,000 yen for full front-line duty. Currently, there are more than 10 Japanese volunteer soldiers fighting in Ukraine, but the Japanese government has issued an evacuation advisory for all of Ukraine and has announced that people should refrain from traveling to the country and is gathering information about the Japanese volunteer soldiers. If any of them are found, there is a possibility that their passports will be forcibly returned.
If they return to Japan, they may have their passports confiscated or, in the worst case, be arrested. I am prepared to accept that and join the fight. First of all, I am fighting to end this war as soon as possible, and I don’t want the war to spread to the rest of the world.”
In September, the Ukrainian military launched a reverse offensive, and there is no end in sight. We asked Mr. Yamada what he plans to do.
I hope that the war will end soon so that the people of Ukraine can live in peace. If the troops ask me to go back to the front because they don’t have enough manpower, I am ready to go back to the front again.
From the October 28 and November 4, 2022 issues of FRIDAY
Photography and text by Toru Yokota (news photographer)： Toru Yokota (News photographer)