Japan: Insular Thinking and the Challenges of the factual World beyond

Japan’s recently passed security bills in the lower house regarding the collective self-defense rights have brought about agitated discussions amongst the Japanese and as well as in its neighbor countries like China and South Korea. Some arguments are seemingly going too far, e.g., that the Japanese government might apply conscription or that Japan could again be able to start wars. Many constitutional experts insist on the illegality of the bills. The bills are now deliberated in the upper house.

Japan already approved the law of the Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan in 1999, which allows overseas deployments of the Self Defense-Force (SDF) in non-combat zones; consequently, the SDF was dispatched to the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and Iraq between 2001 and 2007 to supply fuel and materiel and to assist in humanitarian and reconstruction work. In each case Japan approved special laws with or without time limit in order to meet the requirements of US and UN decisions. Most Japanese are against SDF overseas deployments of any type including humanitarian assistance since the SDF is a military organization. Deploying the SDF means actions in militarily dangerous areas; otherwise, fire fighters, policemen, and emergency services would suffice for humanitarian assistance or rescue actions in disaster areas outside Japan. The Japanese would like to avoid being involved in any wars. Hence, the Japanese government has to try to change the interpretation of the constitution and approve special laws to meet the demands of such situations.

This dilemma, namely, that Japan temporarily adjusts the interpretation of the constitution to circumvent difficulties in order to meet international demands whenever deployment of the SDF comes into consideration is rather problematic.

The Japan Defense Ministry will issue the Defense White Paper 2015 in August. China and South Korea have already condemned its contents. South Korea flatly declared that the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands must not be indicated as a Japanese territory. If Japan does not change its recognition, military cooperation between South Korea and Japan might not be expected. China criticized that the Defense White Paper blows up China’s threat and therefore intentionally increases regional tensions. However, China has recently started to build oil rigs in the disputed area of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

The deterrence capability of any nation rests on its being able to also effectively field offensive actions. Japan sorely lacks this capability, both in arms and laws. Furthermore, a nation holding no clear constitutional approval of using defense power cannot restrain enemies from invasion or intrusion into internal affairs. Only the presence of the US bases in Japan establishes this deterrence capability. Japan rather seems to ban the SDF from using force; as a result, the SDF is seemingly not up to the task at all to tackle and manage cases that need force and resolve besides adequate equipment and constitutional support. Chinese provocations in the disputed islands’ areas might aggravate an already tense situation because China cannot be discouraged by Japan for the time being.

Furthermore, Japan’s lack of security politics laws likely causes even more serious problems in case of North Korean aggressions if the relationship between South Korea and Japan remains so dismal. The UNESCO world heritage argument between both nations in July 2015 deteriorated this already very strained relationship even further. The South Korean Foreign Minister visited Japan and promised to unconditionally cooperate in Japan’s application that had to be approved by the UNESCO committee. The Japanese government likewise promised to support South Korea’s application. This agreement was publicly reported in Japan. However, South Korea unexpectedly opposed Japan’s application at the UNESCO committee. Since the Japanese government already faced difficulties with the controversial security bills and the cost explosion of the planned Olympic stadium, Abe’s cabinet, therefore, would have desired to at least gain the UNESCO approval. Large numbers of Japanese citizens severely criticized the approval because Japan consented to South Korea’s request to include in these heritage sites the history of forced workers during the war. It was said that the total lack of preparation by the Japanese foreign ministry caused this undesirable result. The Japanese government soon after announced that forced work (requisitioned work) does not equal forced labor. Nevertheless, Japanese mistrust of South Korea has skyrocketed since then.

South Korea, together with the US forces stationed on the peninsula, might react first to aggressive actions from North Korea. The US military bases in Japan probably should support them in such a scenario. However, these US military bases need Japanese government approval to use facilities and logistics in Japan. Should the relationship between Japan and South Korea sour even more, the Japanese would maybe not agree to use these facilities, which would cause serious problems for the US, due to avoiding taking any risks of being attacked by North Korea. Since the sanctions against Iran will be relaxed step by step, North Korea might be tempted to take any actions necessary to improve the chances to draw the US into negotiations. At any event, Japan needs to prepare and pass laws in order to react to emergency cases. If North Korea attacks Japan, the US is obliged to protect Japan as outlined in the security treaty between Japan and the US. That might be a dilemma for the US and Japanese governments, when the peoples’ mistrust towards each other is increasing in Japan and South Korea. Japan’s controversial security bills might also attribute to this dilemma and the relationship between Japan and South Korea. Furthermore, just such a case is denoted in the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation announced in April 2015 under section D, “Actions in Response to an Armed Attack against a Country other than Japan”.[1] To achieve the terms of these guidelines Japan needs to change the interpretation of the constitution and approve new laws if the Japanese government is not able to change the constitution. There might have been some US pressure to eventually come up with adequate Japanese laws in order to fully cooperate with the US military. Japan could not simply ignore such pressure because its defense fundamentally counts on US military power. Japan cannot defend its land alone, but its willingness to defense itself and certain preparations could be conducive to carry out its politics and diplomacy more or less independently.


[1] Japan Ministry of Defense: The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, April 27, 2015. [accessed July 7, 2015] http://www.mod.go.jp/e/d_act/anpo/shishin_20150427e.html

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