Hajime Kimura for TIMEA Self-Defense Forces pilot during alert training at the Naha Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, on Sept. 10, 2013
U.S. Marine tilt-rotor aircraft swooped in during a joint training exercise at this military training range in southwestern Japan last week, dropping off Japanese ground troops and peeling away. The soldiers raced to nearby positions, cutting off an opposing force threatening Marines nearby.
As military maneuvers go, it was fairly basic. But had it been a real-world mission, it might also have been illegal.
Under the current interpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution, Japan’s armed forces are not permitted to fight on behalf of friends or allies unless the Japanese themselves come under direct attack.
It is a policy that conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to change. An advisory panel is expected to issue a report by year’s end recommending that Abe issue a new interpretation of the 66-year-old constitution. A new policy is expected, which will permit Japanese troops to come to the aid of not only Americans and other allies, but international peacekeepers and civilian refugees as well.
“Some people fear that if the interpretation is changed, Japan will be able to wage war on the other side of the world, but that’s not what this is about,” says Yuichi Hosoya, a law professor at Keio University and a member of Abe’s Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security.
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“The purpose is to enable Japan to help defend members of other countries, be they peacekeepers or civilians. It is about engaging in joint, collective self-defense,” Hosoya says.
At present, about 350 Japanese troops — mostly engineers — are part of a U.N. peacekeeping force in South Sudan. Japanese warships and patrol planes have been taking part in multinational antipiracy missions off the coast of Somalia since 2009.
Japan has wrestled with constitutional limits on its troops for decades. Prior to the 1990s, Japan refused to participate in international peacekeeping operations or other missions that might draw Japanese troops into a fight. Though formidable, Japan’s armed forces are organized, trained and equipped largely for defensive operations.
Nonetheless, China’s rising military strength and assertiveness, and increasing calls for Japan — still one of world’s richest countries — to participate in international peace and security operations has forced a new look at how and when its forces might be allowed to fight.
Under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, American forces are obligated to defend Japan against attack. But Japan’s responsibilities for protecting Americans are less clearly defined. Abe says he wants to tighten security relations with Washington, and argues that failure to help defend American forces when necessary could jeopardize the alliance.
“Imagine a situation where a U.S. warship protecting waters around Japan comes under a missile attack when our Aegis ship is nearby,” Abe told reporters in July. “If we don’t shoot [hostile missiles] down despite our capability [to do so], the American ship will sink and many young lives will be lost. Can we maintain the alliance under such a circumstance?”
Americans have been quietly urging Japan to drop the ban on collective self-defense. Australia’s new Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said last week that her government welcomes “the direction that the Abe government has taken in terms of having a more normal defense posture and being able to take a constructive role in regional and global security.”
But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.
China has denounced the debate over collective self-defense as evidence of rising Japanese militarism. Officials in South Korea, another U.S. ally, have expressed reservations about the change in policy as well.
Even in Japan, where support for the self-defense force has grown dramatically since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, 59% of respondents in a recent Asahi newspaper poll said they opposed any change in the policy.
Abe had been expected to push for revisions during a special session of the Diet that began last week, but has delayed action until the advisory panel issues its report.
For troops training at the Aibano range last week, the policy debate seemed somewhat moot.
About 80 U.S. Marines and 200 members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force spent two weeks practicing basic infantry skills and working to eliminate language, cultural and operational differences. Though smaller than originally planned, the exercise carried on despite budget chaos in Washington and a typhoon that battered much of eastern and central Japan.
The senior Japanese commander on the scene said the exercise, held twice a year, was unrelated to growing tensions with China or the debate over collective self-defense.
“The strategic environment surrounding our country has changed and the Japanese people are concerned about their security. Our mission is to be ready to protect the peace and security of this country — we are confident we can do that,” said Colonel Sosuke Yoshida, commander of the 37th Infantry Regiment.
Lieut. Colonel Tom Wood, commander of the Third Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, said he was impressed with the planning, maintenance and field skills of the Japanese troops. If they lack anything, he said, it’s the ingrained aggressiveness that U.S. troops have learned through a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You can see it: they are not an offensive force, they are a self-defense force,” said Wood. “But I’d be happy to serve alongside these guys. We know they’ll be there.”