The contradictions of Japan’s self-defence force

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On the 15th of August 1945, Emperor Hirohito broadcast his acceptance of the terms offered by the allies in the Potsdam Declaration issued over two weeks previously. The loss of the Ryukyu Islands to the allies and the devastation of Hiroshima had not been enough to settle the conflict; the combination of the Soviet seizure of Manchuria and the bombing of Nagasaki on the same day had brought to light how bleak the prospects of Japan were if the decision was made to carry on the fight.

It was not until the 2nd of September aboard the USS Missouri that the government made the surrender official. The Constitution of the Empire of Japan in place since 1890 was revised entirety to become in 1947 the Constitution of Japan which is still the basis of all Japanese law today. Of particular significance is Article 9, Chapter 2: Renunciation of War:

“ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

This is still being enforced to this day. However, the Japanese government now maintains one of the world’s largest defence budgets and has made clear their intentions to increase spending in this area over the coming years – this seems quite contradictory. Though not officially permitted a standing army, navy, or air force, the United States instigated the formation of the Japan Self Defence Forces (JSDF) – a military in all but name – as it was decided that Article 9 ought not to deny the country an inherent right to self-defence. Initially, the JSDF was strictly confined to deployments on Japanese territory, however, a recent re-interpretation of the constitution suggests that this is about to change.

Rising tensions with China and North Korea seem to be responsible for this change in policy, and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could be seen to be exploiting this. The developments will allow Japanese forces to support international peacekeeping operations, assist allied powers, and possibly to fight abroad. It has been a controversial decision made by the Japanese cabinet, and has provoked much protest among the Japanese people who argue that such a decision ought to be put to a wider vote rather than left solely in the hands of the cabinet. Is Japanese military reform necessary?

The Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute is a major source of friction in the region. Both Japan and China claim sovereignty over the small island chain, and both countries have asserted a kind of ‘air defence zone’ in the East China Sea that overlaps by a considerable amount. The result has been several regrettable incidents of infringement, military flexing and shows of force. The Chinese government seems to view this relaxing of the constitution not so much as a direct threat, but certainly a factor weighed directly against their own interest in view of the mistrust between themselves and the United States. Japan has enjoyed very strong relations with the U.S since the 1950’s and is seen as one of America’s firmest allies, enjoying many economic and military benefits. If push comes to shove, it is clear that even without this longer military leash, Japan would provide valuable support for US operations in the event of potential hostilities with China.

While Chinese/American relations are far from hostile at present, there is still a strong sense of competitive distrust. As China seeks to expand its territorial influence, smaller nations in the region (Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea) seem to be seeking stronger US-relations in an effort to contain Chinese interests. A blossoming, and potentially hostile, superpower on your doorstep seems reason enough to seek powerful allies – whatever your opinion of them. It should be noted that both China and the US have intoned in various ways that the occurrence of any kind of hostilities between each other would be disastrous. There seems to be a genuine desire on both sides to maintain or improve on stable relations.

Taken objectively, without any misgivings about historic Japanese military excesses and abuse, it seems folly for a country investing so much into a defence budget to deny any kind of foreign operational deployment. Japanese troops were deployed in Iraq to assist in reconstruction between 2003 and 2009, but none have ever served in a combat role since World War II. They are often described as highly trained and well equipped, but can hardly be considered battle-ready. A lack of regular foreign deployment, even in a non-combatant role, seems to be a waste of an investment.

The JSDF has proven itself useful to date in humanitarian roles within Japan. The Tsunami and subsequent disaster at Fukushima in 2011 is a prime example of this, with 100,000 JSDF personnel were mobilised and credited with the rescue of over 19,000 civilians. They can only be commended for their efforts in such a difficult and tragic position, however, with the restrictions on ‘collective self-defence’ – the defence of their allies – they cannot be said to be pulling their weight internationally.

It seems that reform is necessary to clear up the issue of what really constitutes self-defence for Japan. To rely on a constitution imposed upon a weak nation after losing in a war almost 70 years ago itself seems absurd. For a more self-assertive and internationally useful Japan to emerge there seems to be only one way forward. Mr Abe is attempting to make the first small steps towards this end, and is already facing strong pacifist opposition from the Japanese public. It will be some time before we see a Japan able to live up to its current military potential.

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About Philip Horey 4 Articles
Philip Horey attended the University of Edinburgh. During his studies he spent his summers on fieldwork in Cyprus, and served in the military as a reservist. He graduated with an MA (Hons) in Archaeology, with a specific interest in classics and ancient history.

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