Japan’s military that isn’t: a short primer in self-defense doublespeak


Special To The Japan Times

Now that “defense of others” (taei, 他衛) is a form of “self-defense” (jiei, 自衛) and, according to Defense Minister Gen Nakatani in a recent Diet appearance, hand grenades (shuryūdan, 手りゅう弾) and missiles (misairu, ミサイル) are not weapons (buki, 武器) but ammunition (dan’yaku, 弾薬), it may be an apt time to review military doublespeak.

Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution famously renounces war (sensō, 戦争) and the use of force to resolve international dispute. It also prohibits the maintenance of “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential” (rikukaikūgun sono ta no senryoku, 陸海空軍その他の戦力). The provisions have been interpreted as permitting the maintenance and use of military force for self-defense, but this has led to some interesting linguistic gymnastics.

Both gun (軍, army or military) and sen (戦, war) are elementary kanji that are combined with numerous others to form numerous common military terms. These may be constitutionally problematic, however, at least in official parlance. For example, combine gun with kai (海, sea), (空, sky) and riku (陸, land) and you get navy (海軍, kaigun), air force (空軍, kūgun) and army (陸軍, rikugun), all of which are specifically prohibited by the charter.

Instead, Japan has the euphemistic Self-Defense Forces or SDF (jieitai, 自衛隊), consisting of the Air Self-Defense Force (kōkūjieitai, 航空自衛隊 or ASDF), Ground Self-Defense Force (rikujōjieitai, 陸上自衛隊 or GSDF) and Maritime Self-Defense Force (kaijō jieitai, 海上自衛隊 or MSDF). The last one may sound similar to the coast guard forces maintained by some countries, but Japan has a separate organization to police (rather than defend) the seas, the kaijō hoanchō (海上保安庁). It calls itself the Japan Coast Guard in English, but the Japanese really means “maritime security agency.”

The confusing overlap in policing and defense terminology has historical antecedents. The SDF got its start in 1950 as what was called a National Police Reserve (keisatsu yobitai, 警察 予備隊). Established in part to help quell internal strife, its equipment included some of the accoutrements more commonly associated with an army, including automatic weapons and tanks.

Tanks raise another terminology problem. The Japanese term is sensha (戦車, literally, “war vehicle”). Does the character sen (戦) mean tanks are “war potential” of the type prohibited by the Constitution?

The same issue arises with the term for “fighter aircraft,” which in Japanese is sentōki (戦闘機, war/combat plane). Similarly, while navies don’t use battleships (senkan, 戦艦) any more, the generic term for “warship” (gunkan, 軍艦) would make it hard to not call the organization using them a “navy.”

This problem was solved initially by calling tanks tokusha (特車, “special vehicles”). Fighters were yōgekiki (邀撃機, or “interceptors”). While the SDF now openly uses the standard terms for tanks and fighters, large MSDF vessels are still referred to as jieikan (自衛艦, “self-defense vessels”). (Nonetheless, the character for kan (艦) still means “ship of battle” and distinguishes it from the civilian sen (船, ship — more commonly pronounced fune), which is used for noncombat vessels, including those operated by the Japan Coast Guard).

SDF ranks have also been sanitized to avoid any connections to “military” pay grades — gunsō (軍曹, sergeant) becoming sōshi (曹士) and so forth. The English translations apparently remain largely the same.

The SDF are under the Ministry of Defense (bōeishō, 防衛省). Despite being the largest organ of the Japanese government (by personnel), it was not a ministry (shō, 省) until 2007. Previously it was two agencies, the Defense Agency (bōeichō, 防衛庁), which controlled the SDF, and the Defense Facilities Administration Agency (bōeishisetsuchō, 防衛施設庁), which oversaw SDF and U.S. bases. As mere “agencies” (chō, 庁), Japan’s defense establishment was not directly represented in the Cabinet. That has changed.

The Cabinet is the source of another constitutional conundrum. Article 66 of the Constitution requires all ministers of state to be “civilians.” This condition was imposed by the representatives of the Allied powers in 1946 late in the drafting process. Unfortunately, at the time Japanese lacked a term corresponding to the English “civilian.” A new term, bunmin (文民), was invented to express the concept. It doesn’t seem to have caught on; when people talk of “civilian control” of the military they often use the original English expression, but in more easy-to-pronounce katakana (i.e., shibirian kontorōru, シビリアンコントロール).

What does “civilian” mean when the pretense is that you have no military? In the past, some theories held Article 66 should be read as excluding from Cabinet posts all who had served in the Imperial Japanese Army or Navy. Widespread conscription, however, would have resulted in almost everybody (male) being ineligible. While an active-duty SDF member concurrently serving in the Cabinet would likely be problematic, there has been more debate over whether prior service in the SDF disqualifies a person from Cabinet service.

Today it does not: Nakatani served four years in the GSDF before going into politics. In 2001 he was also the first person with such a background to be appointed as head of the Defense Agency, a post previously reserved for “civilians,” apparently out of respect for what the Constitution was thought to mean back then.

Some constitutional scholars have suggested the Article 66 “civilian” requirement is essentially meaningless. Perhaps they will be proven right.