Global Global Policy Studies & International Security

Rearming A Forbidden Military: Japan’s Self-Defense Force & Constitutional Revisions

With a record $47bn defense budget, a total order of 150 F-35s coupled with the first aircraft carriers since 1945, and a House of Counsillors election in July, 2019 will be a busy year for Prime Minister Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). These enhancements to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF), a military organization not directly permitted by the Japanese Constitution, accompany shifting power dynamics in Asia. For the past seven years, though, the LDP has sought constitutional amendments to the war-renouncing Article 9. These revisions cannot be treated separately from Japan’s military buildup of recent years; together they signal a significant departure from Japan’s historical pacifism with widespread implications for the region.

A Military in Limbo

Since the end of the Second World War, Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 Constitution — a section introduced by the U.S. during post-war occupation — has formally rejected the state’s right to maintain a military or employ military force.

In 1954, the SDF were created for defensive purposes, rather than prohibited belligerency. Japan did not create a Ministry of Defense until 2007, and in that time span a Japan Defense Agency advised the Japanese Diet (the national legislature) on how to manage the SDF. In other words, the SDF were managed directly by lawmakers, and often on an ad-hoc basis; the SDF requires Diet approval before firing at an enemy — even during an invasion. The Japanese Coast Guard, a civilian law-enforcement agency, instead holds the ability to fire on non-compliant vessels.

Despite its limitations the SDF has played a consequential role in natural disaster relief, notably with the Kobe-Awaji earthquake in 1995, and the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Controversial legislation passed in the Diet in 2015 furthermore permits the SDF to provide logistical support to UN missions, lifting the ban on collective self-defense, allowing the SDF to be used to defend another ally if Japan’s survival is a stake. These new roles are a far cry from “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”, as declared in the constitution. In a manner of speaking the SDF operates in a peculiarly functioning institutional limbo: funded and authorized to act by the legislative but technically lacking constitutional provisions; and yet controlled mostly by the legislative branch, but with a role increasingly defined by the courts.

Potential Revisions: Practical, or Symbolic?

With 2020 as the target for constitutional revisions, the LDP internal opinions converged on three main proposals: adding a section specifying the SDF’s existence; specifying Japan’s right to defend itself, as provisioned by United Nations Charter; or substituting in a clause defining the SDF’s purpose and capabilities.

Draft language put forth in 2012, however, was far more robust. The heading of Chapter II of the constitution would change from “Renunciation of War” to “Security.” Clause 1 of this section would prohibit both aggressive use of force and recognize Japan’s right to self-defense. Another clause would stipulate that Japan will maintain a National Defense Force, commanded by the Prime Minister. The additional clause also specifies the NDF’s roles, and asserts the principle of civilian control in accordance with existing and future Diet legislation. The 2012 edits require the state and public together protect Japanese independence and sovereignty. The 2018 proposals are more ambiguous that the 2012 language, suggesting that the contemporary LDP approach may be significantly more modest than in 2012. PM Abe has indeed downplayed public discussions of these revisions in the runup to July’s elections. Given that the 2012 and 2018 goals are quite similar, it is also possible that as debate and drafting continue, language similar to the 2012 draft finds its way into the final revisions.

A conservative approach to revisions indicates an attempt to align the Constitution with Japanese security practice. The SDF is still politically controversial, however, and is considered unconstitutional by its critics. Revisions would ameliorate the discrepancy between action and law, but would not end the public debate on the maintenance of military capabilities. There are some who argue that constitutional revisions will only yield marginal gains, given that the SDF will continue to suffer from personnel shortages, ill-informed public perceptions of SDF missions, and linguistically limited rank and military terminology.

No current language defines the authority that commands and oversees the SDF. The absence of language on this issue represents the ongoing tensions in Japanese civil-military relations as a whole, and the proposed revisions would do little to resolve the many aspects of the SDF’s undefined institutional standing.

In aligning law with practice, Japan’s collective and individual self-defense would gain legal legitimacy. Not only would this reduce the incongruity of having Japan partake in UN peacekeeping operations, but also permit the SDF to aid other partners, such as the U.S., in a time of war. A well-functioning military cannot rely exclusively on judiciaries to define its role, doctrine, nor delegations of command authority.

Revisions must not only legitimize the SDF but also establish clearer authorities managing military affairs. Being able to bridge this gap would likely resolve many of the legal objections held by the public, and would generate systems of accountability and mediation. This is the first step toward transparency and earning public trust. Simply put, Article 9 revisions are likely to act as a starting point for more robust restructuring and for both legitimizing and meeting Japan’s security needs in a quickly changing Asian geopolitical context. And if revisions end up being more symbolic than immediately practical, they signal not only a willingness to align law and action but also a significant potential for enlargement through 2019 and beyond.

Regional Implications of Revisions and Expansion

PM Abe will face domestic resistance for the revisions. Many opposed to current SDF policy assert that it is unconstitutional, while others consider the revisions to violate the defensive role of the SDF in giving it a potentially offensive one. Legitimizing the SDF mitigates the former claims, but does little to assuage the latter. Public opinion is split along a generational divide, with older generations vehemently opposed to Japanese remilitarization. Even if Abe can overcome this opposition, long term military growth will be an uphill battle. The Americans already face public opposition to U.S. military installations — such as the ones in Okinawa — and new Japanese facilities may face similar hostility in the years to come.

With a weak US-NATO response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, China’s all-but-won competition for its 11-dash line in the South China Sea, rocky U.S. relations with North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, and President Trump’s America First withdrawal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Japan certainly has reason to question US security guarantees despite the strength of the alliance. Japan’s SDF expansion has accompanied a regionally assertive Japanese foreign policy, which promoted and led the TPP-11 in face of American absence. Japan is posturing for the national security threats posed by Chinese expansionism and North Korean belligerency just as much as it is responding to unclear U.S. priorities.

This becomes exceptionally paradoxical for PM Abe.  The public objects to a military that may aid the U.S. or others in a time of war, even if the U.S. is committed to Japan’s defense.  And yet, if Japanese confidence in U.S. security guarantees wane as the Asian security climate shifts, then Japan will need its own proper military even more.  This highlights a key disparity in understanding between the LDP and the public that needs to be addressed in the revision process.

China’s political elite are quite conscious of the implications of constitutional revisions and accompanying buildup. In the past China has been critical of the disparity between law and military action, labeling Japan’s military activities a brutal violation of the pacifist constitution. Revisions would render these criticisms of military expansion irrelevant, but sources of tension would remain. Both Japan and China dispute ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and both share still-raw attitudes regarding the Second World War. And given China’s condemnation of joint and independent UK-Japan freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, Japan’s military activities will continue to be a significant regional tension. It is entirely likely Chinese information operations may target Japanese public opinion to mobilize it against the revisions and other defense policies this year.

Similar agitations between South Korea (ROK) and Japan exist, including ownership disputes over the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands. Military tensions between the ROK recently flared when a ROK destroyer allegedly locked-on to a Japanese P-1 patrol aircraft, resulting in both sides terminating working-level talks to resolve issue. Seoul raised additional claims of Japanese aircraft buzzing (flying less than 150 meters above a vessel) ROK naval vessels, violations Japan has denied. As Japan revises its constitution to reflect its military expansion, higher military operations tempos are likely to increase the frequency of such incidents, which may spill over into other non-military elements of Japan-ROK relations.

Despite these tensions, this is an opportunity for regional partners, particularly the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad, for short), to direct Japan along a responsible military rise. The Quad — an emerging security cooperation group comprised of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. — offers a potent forum for deconflicting military operations, de-escalating unnecessary tensions, and sharing best practices. Joint exercises, and joint strategic planning will offer invaluable insight for Japan’s military leaders as they shape their armed forces. If used effectively, the Quad can further advise Japanese leaders on fostering healthy civil-military relations, in addition to restraining any potential Japanese belligerence.

The U.S. introduced Article 9 into Japan’s constitution, and must be proactive in coordinating and managing consequences of revision. Assuring Japan of U.S. security guarantees may indeed moderate PM Abe’s perceived need for urgent military buildup, and U.S. efforts to reduce regional tensions may diminish Japanese public fears of being dragged into another state’s war. An empowered Japan will strengthen its defense and the Quad’s strategic goals, but only if Japan can assure its population and neighbors not just with rhetoric alone but also responsible military actions in the years to come.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. 

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