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East Asia Program

"Japan's Evolving Security Policy"

Katsuyuki Yakushiji

Visiting Fellow, Henry L. Stimson Center
Editorial Writer, Asahi Shimbun

 March 7, 2002


Japan's Policy in the 1990s

Since the end of the Cold War, Japanese security policy has changed drastically. During the Cold War, it was not necessary for Japan to participate in actions to suppress international disputes. The Japanese government increased the capacity of the Self Defense Force (SDF), and this was seen as a sufficient contribution to international peace and to the safety of the Western bloc.

However, the Gulf War forced a change of attitude in Japan. During the Gulf War, the Japanese government contributed more than one trillion yen. But because its contributions were only monetary in nature, the international community accused Japan of not pulling its own weight. In 1992, Japan passed the Peace Keeping Operations (PKO) Law and sent the SDF to Cambodia. Japan and the United states then released the "Japan-U.S. Joint Declaration on the Security Alliance for the 21st Century" in 1996. Three years later, in 1999, "The Law Concerning Measures to Ensure the Peace and Security of Japan in Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan," was passed by the Diet. Finally, last year, after the events of September 11, the Diet also passed "The Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law," and Japan sent the SDF to the Indian Ocean.

These ten years may be separated into four distinct periods. The first period will be called "The Embarrassment and a New Step," and spans the Gulf War Crisis, which took place from 1990 to 1992. Japan was not prepared to deal with the circumstances of the Gulf War, and consequently, was criticized by the whole international community. After about two years, Japan succeeded in passing the PKO Law and sent the SDF abroad for the first time.

The second period, the "The Drifting Period," spans the years 1993 to 1995. During this period, many unexpected events took place. North Korea launched the Nodong missile into the Sea of Japan. The United States and North Korea reached a negotiated settlement to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Then, a U.S. soldier assaulted a girl in Okinawa. This last incident became an especially serious public relations problem. Many people began to question the need for the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in the post-Cold War period. There was a need for both governments to reinterpret the meaning of the Treaty.

The third period, refers to "The Reorganization Period," from 1996 to 1997. Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro and President Bill Clinton met and expanded the role of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the regions that the treaty covered. They produced a joint declaration on the security alliance and reached an agreement to move the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Base.

The last period, "The Evolution of the Alliance," is from 1998 to the present. After the Taepodong missile launching by North Korea, Japan wanted to launch its own satellites to gather intelligence, and the United States agreed. Both governments also agreed to cooperate on research for missile defense. The Japanese Diet passed the "Guidelines law" and the "Anti-terrorism measures law." During this last period, the U.S.-Japan alliance has deepened its relationship.

Before the Gulf War, the Japanese government concerned itself only with security matters in the East Asia region referred to in the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Now, with the passage of the aforementioned laws, the SDF can act virtually anywhere in the world. There has not only been change in the SDF's geographic reach, but also in the scope of the SDF's actions. However, under the current peace constitution, the SDF has reached the limit of its capabilities. Of course, there are differing opinions - some say that the new laws violate the constitution, while others say that the government can do even more. Successive Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) administrations have repeatedly revised the interpretation of the constitution and expanded the scope of the SDF over a period of many years. At present, the SDF can do nothing more, neither legally nor politically, without a real amendment of the constitution.

The Background of Japan's Reforms

There are four characteristics to Japan's reforms. First, all the changes occurred in a passive way; they were forced by changes in the international environment and requests by the United States. Second, because the Japanese government did not have a long-term strategy, they repeatedly decided on reforms on a case-by-case basis, and did not act beyond the scope of each situation. Third, the Japanese role has changed from being static to dynamic. Of course, the SDF is still restricted to providing logistic support, but the U.S.-Japan alliance has continued to grow stronger. Last, the information technology (IT) revolution has turned the SDF into a force that resembles the U.S. military. Many of the SDF's technologies deeply connect to American technology. For the SDF, it is difficult to act independently.

The political background of these changes can be attributed to the following events. First, Japanese political reorganization has made all of these changes possible. The Socialist Party was a powerful opposition party to the LDP during the Cold War period and they consistently attacked the existence of the SDF as unconstitutional. The Socialist Party insisted that even a war of self-defense was prohibited by the constitution. In the Diet, politicians could not discuss security policies. For many years, there were no permanent committees on security policy. If the government tried to offer a bill or new policy concerning the SDF, the Socialist Party blocked it. However, in the 1990s, the Socialist Party lost a number of seats in the Diet and, thus, lost its influence. Finally, in 1994 Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi, the chairman of the Socialist Party, changed his party's main policy, and declared the SDF constitutional. Now, almost all parties recognize the legitimacy of the SDF.

Currently, the most powerful opposition to the LDP comes from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). They aggressively discuss security policy in the Diet, and at times, their policies are even more drastic than the LDP's. Hatoyama Yukio, chairman of the DPJ, has said that the United States should stop stationing troops in Japan, and that Japan should defend itself with its own military. Some young politicians in the DPJ have insisted on amending the constitution and stating the legitimacy of the SDF clearly. It is clear that the attitude towards security policy has changed, and now politicians can debate these subjects openly.

Second, conservative politicians were able to take advantage of the changing role of the United Nations. During the Cold War, the U.N. did not work effectively. However, politicians who leaned to the left and some of the public insisted that Japanese security policy should put the U.N. at its center. After the Cold War, the U.N. was able to act more efficiently and increase its power; so Japanese conservative politicians used the U.N. to as a way to expand the activities of the SDF. Consequently, the Japanese public has traditionally supported the U.N.; the LDP's tactics were effective.

Third, the change in public opinion regarding the SDF was dramatic. Originally, public opinion was extremely negative towards the expansion of the SDF's role. The approval rate of the PKO bill was only 20 percent in 1990 when it went through to the Diet. More than 70 percent of the people were against the dispatch of the SDF to a foreign country. However, that opinion has rapidly changed. After the Cambodia PKO, the approval rating topped 50 percent in support of SDF participation in PKO's. With the Gulf War, the PKO in Cambodia, as well as the North Korean missile problem, the Japanese people experienced international issues as their own problems for the first time since World War II. The public had an opportunity to see the reality of the international arena, and was able to understand it.

Fourth, new conservative politicians have played an important role in reforms. These new conservatives believe that national interests - the independence of Japan and international cooperation - are all-important. They do not concern themselves with the historical problems related to China and Korea. They think that Japan and the United States should be equal partners, and that Japan should not be subordinate to the United States. These politicians belong to both the LDP and the DPJ and they have an opportunity to change security policy drastically.

Unchangeable Factors

Looking back over this decade, a weakened Socialist Party, the appearance of new conservative politicians, and the change in public opinion have affected Japanese security policies. With this trend continuing, some may say that Japan will amend its constitution in a few years and send the SDF to the battlefield to fight, or to join a multinational army. But this will not happen. Journalists often make mistaken predictions about political or economic situations. It is likely that Japan will not be able to amend the constitution in the next ten to twenty years, especially Article 9, and that the Japanese government will not send the SDF to a foreign country to fight.

The Japanese people have unique feelings towards the SDF. Every nation has its own army, and usually a degree of respect for its soldiers, but in Japan, people do not think this way. There are historical reasons for this. During World War II, the Japanese army was at its most powerful and used military operations and foreign policy to its advantage. They ignored orders from the prime minister, and even the emperor. They also ignored information that was inconvenient for them. The most famous case of this happening was with the Japanese Kwangtung Army. The Kwangtung Army invaded northern China, causing much hostility. The Japanese government ordered an end to the conflict, but they ignored those orders, and as a result, Japan plunged into World War II.

About sixty years have passed, and more than half of the Japanese population was born after World War II, but the memories of the Imperial Army's actions are still alive in everybody's minds. Last year in an Asahi Shimbun public opinion poll, more than sixty percent thought that the SDF was constitutional. People now accept the existence of the SDF, and even appreciate it but they are very nervous about the SDF's overseas operations. Sixty-six percent of Japanese think that the government should not strengthen the SDF. When asked about the proper role of the SDF, the most popular answer was disaster relief, with those giving earthquakes and typhoons as their answer at thirty-seven percent. (The other opinions were: defense of the country, 20 percent; keeping national peace and order, 19 percent; non-military action under the auspices of the U.N., 8 percent; military action under the U.N., 5 percent; and, action as a partner of the United States, 1 percent.) In terms of the SDF's overseas action, sixty-six percent answered it should be non-military while only twenty-four percent supported military action. In addition, seventy-four percent were against the amendment of Article 9.

The results show that the public does not want SDF military operations in foreign countries. Many people do not want the SDF to be a military organization like that of other countries because they do not believe in the SDF. At the same time, seventy-four percent approve of maintaining the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. The Japanese people recognize the deficiencies of the SDF, and hope that the U.S. army will compensate for its faults. Some members of the SDF do not even think of themselves as a full-fledged army, and believe that they will not fight or go to dangerous areas. Last November, when the Marine SDF (MSDF) sent warships to the Indian Ocean, a young soldier said in a TV interview, "When I got a job in the SDF, I never thought that I would go to a dangerous area. I do not want to go to such a place." An officer of the SDF saw the interview and complained, "Is he really a member of the SDF?"

The Misunderstanding of Civilian Control

For many years, there were misunderstandings about the meaning of "civilian control" because the SDF was not only ignored by the public, but also by the political establishment. Civilian control of the military is meant to prevent militarism and block the military from intervening in the inner-workings of government. The Japanese government defines a non-civilian as the following: "a soldier in commission, or who has had a career as a soldier and thoughts of militarism." Japan has many laws or systems to continue civilian control. One example is Article 66 of the constitution: "The prime minister and other ministers of state must be civilians." Another is that the Diet has the right to decide the budget and laws of the Japan Defense Agency (JDA). If the government wants to order the SDF into military action, they must get the approval of the Diet in advance.

There are two main groups within the JDA, the first being the Internal Bureau (office of the director general of the Defense Agency), and the second being the three services of the SDF. The former has about 600 staff, while the latter has about 200,000 staff. Almost all Internal Bureau staff are civilians, with some from the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). They control the military organization, practically the entire JDA.

For many years, uniformed officers could not visit the prime minister's office. If they had visited, opposition parties would criticize it as a violation of civilian control. Of course, this situation has changed since then. In 1985, Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro invited the uniformed officers to his office and asked for reports on Northeast Asian security issues. This was the first visit allowed in nine years. His successor, Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru, held a party in his office and invited 150 soldiers in 1989. Such an event was a first, and even within the LDP, there was criticism and a feeling that "uniformed members of the SDF should not be permitted to strut into the prime minister's office."

In the 1990s, many prime ministers called the uniformed officers of the SDF to their office. There was a little known rule that when uniformed officers visited the prime minister's office some directors from the Internal Bureau were required to be with them. There was also a regulation that the uniformed officers were prohibited from having contact with or discussing policy with other ministries or Diet offices. The government believed that such work should be for the staff of the Internal Bureau. These rules had existed for about fifty years but in 1997, Prime Minister Hashimoto abolished them both. Now some uniformed officers have joined the prime minister's office staff, and senior officers of the military organization are able to go to the prime minister's office alone.

The exclusion of uniformed officers continues in the Diet. There seem to have been no interaction between Diet committees and officers for many decades. In addition, Diet members and their committees have never discussed security policy with uniformed officers. After searching through the records, there was one from 1959, where one officer of the uniformed services attended a committee of the Lower House to explain combat planes. There were no other records of uniformed officers attending Diet sessions after that. Moreover, in 1997, when the Diet was discussing the Guidelines law, the Vice-Minister of the Defense Agency Akiyama Masahiro said at a press conference, "If Diet members agree and have the need, military officers will attend committees and answer questions." However, no Diet members have yet required the presence of military officers. There is no officer session like in the U.S. Congress in the Japanese Diet. As a result, politicians have no access to detailed and important information. Moreover, many politicians are not interested in security problems or foreign affairs.

Not only is the problem of civilian control an issue of exclusion, there is a distinct lack of control over the military. In 1986, an officer of the Ground SDF (GSDF), during an interview with a weekly magazine, said, "To use the expression of the people who criticize the SDF, only dropouts join the SDF." The Minister of the Defense Agency punished him for this statement. In the Diet, the former Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) took up his case and opposed the punishment. They insisted that the officer's quote did not cause trouble. At this occasion, this was all that the government and the Diet politicians discussed.

The same officer offered the comment that, "World War II was not only a period of gloom and hopelessness. Our seniors were trying to build the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and they sacrificed their own lives for the Emperor…. It is a common perception that while the Russian government is bad, each Russian person is good. I know this is a lie. We cannot truly talk with the Russians." These comments should have caused much more trouble than the earlier quote, and the Minister of the JDA and Diet members should have taken up this issue, but they did not.

The government and the Diet members have a mistaken definition of civilian control. They believe that it means to keep military personnel away from the policy making process, or to contain them. Civilian control should not cut off the relationship with military officers, rather, it should be the civilians making final policy decisions based upon better knowledge of security issues, including the opinions and expertise given by military personnel.


In these last ten years, the Japanese people have come to understand the role, ability, and function of the SDF. Moreover, they have become interested in international situations, regional conflicts, security policy, and the role of PKO. Before the 1990s, the public thought only about domestic issues, and discussed only whether the SDF was constitutional or unconstitutional. Now many Japanese people appreciate the SDF.

At the same time, people believe that military organizations are awful, that a smaller army is better, and that the government or the Diet should control the SDF. The concern is that the SDF will be able to act recklessly like the former Imperial Army. This kind of thought has not changed. In Japan, the SDF remains a taboo subject. The public, as well as bureaucrats and many Diet members, keep their distance from the SDF. Few politicians deal with security issues.

The SDF has become more powerful, and can now act legally worldwide and are more closely coordinated with the U.S. armed forces. The U.S.-Japan alliance has also evolved considerably. These changes are both important and meaningful for Japan, but who has truly researched or discussed them? In the Diet, bureaucrats hide information because there is no transparency like that of an officer session in the United States, so they make their explanations noncommittally. The ruling party only seeks to pass bills as quickly as possible, and never tries to expand the debate in the Diet. Without information, the opposition insists only on restricting the number of rifles that the SDF can bring to a foreign country for PKO, or getting approval of the Diet in advance.

After World War II, the Japanese government made a large investment of resources, budget, young people, and tracts of land for the SDF and its bases. Such resources should not be used simply to impress the United States. Japan should use these resources efficiently and rationally. There needs to be a national strategy that involves the SDF.

Under the present constitution, the role of the SDF is, and should be, restricted to non-combatant contributions. For example, the conference for Afghanistan reconstruction held in Tokyo proved that Japan could contribute in the international arena in a different way from United States. Japan's contributions may focus on non-combatant actions, such as minesweeping, refugee relief, and environmental preservation. The members of the SDF are trained well and they can be independent in any situation. Therefore, the Japanese government should consider strategies of how Japan can make a contribution to international security by using the SDF in non-combat roles.

Finally, on the matter of relations with the United States, it seems that the U.S. government has requested Japan to take on new roles or burdens periodically by taking advantage of the lack of a long-term strategy by the Japanese government. Should these requests lead to the amendment of the constitution, the release of the present prohibition of collective self-defense, or direct SDF participation in a multi-national army, many Japanese people will oppose the United States. This could be a major factor in making the U.S.-Japan alliance unstable. In the twenty-first century, international cooperation and the sharing of roles by many countries are most important in maintaining international peace.

Summary of comments, questions, and answers:

A roundtable participant disagreed with the idea the SDF should be restricted to non-military roles. It was suggested that the changing security environment as well as Japan's national interests should be the starting point for thinking about the future role of the SDF. Yakushiji responded by questioning whether Japan could send the SDF abroad without constitutional amendments. He claimed that without amendments, the SDF would not agree to go abroad. He furthered that if the Japanese government did dispatch the SDF without amendments, then it would get away with doing many things without changing the law.

A question was asked about how the economic situation in Japan affects Japan's national security policy. Yakushiji remarked that he fears that if the Japanese economy continues to perform poorly, Japan may have to limit or end host nation support, ODA, or international aid. Economic problems are closely related to security problems. In Northeast Asia, if Japan's economy weakens, the power balance in the region may change depending on what happens in China.

When asked whether Japan understands President Bush's anti-terrorism objectives, Yakushiji stated that the Japanese people and government support Bush's policy. However, a half-year into the war against terrorism, there are new developments like the 'Axis of Evil' remarks in his State of the Union address and potential problems with Iraq. Japan must decide whether to change the basic anti-terrorism plan by the middle of May - this result will depend in part what Bush decides to do regarding Iraq. If the United States attacks Iraq before May, the Japanese government will suffer greatly because it will have to offer a new plan to the Diet. If the United States doesn't attack, the Japanese government will continue with its same basic plan.

One person expressed the view that it is important for Japan to play a military role in the near future. First, an increased security role is important because of the diversification of threats, and within this context, it is important to distinguish between military and non-military roles. Second, in contrast to the past, President Bush is now forcing countries to take sides in the war against terrorism. It is important for Japan to play a role in the war in Afghanistan, but this cannot be a replacement for a military role. Japan is now providing some military role to U.S. forces and U.S. and Japan strategic dialogue is much more intense than in the past.

Yakushiji was asked if he was making the argument that the SDF can't take an active combat role because the Japanese government and Diet won't allow the revision of the constitution, and whether this is related to the failure of Japanese leadership. Yakushiji responded that it is impossible to change fundamental policies without a strong prime minister or powerful politicians. He stated that while the current conservative politicians are not so powerful, but that in 10 to 20 years younger politicians would be able to better make policy.

A comment was made about civilian control and relations between politicians and the military. In the case of whether or not to deploy the Aegis destroyer to the Indian Ocean, it was stated that politicians should decide the mission of the SDF, but not but not what type of vessel to dispatch. The military should decide what type of vessel to send based on military standards.

One participant summarized Yakushiji's talk by saying that he advocated a more constructive role for the military in Japan and that there were two restraints to this: 1) people's delicate feelings towards the SDF as a result of history; 2) there is not enough consultation between the military and decision-makers. There needs to be more lively discussion about this matter at the grassroots level to address these issues.

Other questions were asked regarding the role of the Japanese media in influencing foreign policy and Japan's decision-making mechanism with regards to Japan coast guard's sinking of the North Korean spy vessel.

Note: The views expressed in this summary are not necessarily those of any organizations with which the author is associated.