New Defense Role: Next step is to free up SDF

by Sayuri Daimon

Staff writer

Will the Self-Defense Forces be able to act swiftly in case of a terrorist attack or aggression by another country against Japan?

Now that the bills to cover the updated Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines have been approved by the Diet, some politicians in the conservative bloc are raising this question. They argue the SDF will be unable to deal effectively with emergencies at home under the existing legal framework.

The bills call for the SDF to provide the U.S. military with logistic support during emergencies in areas surrounding Japan. The lawmakers argue that the next step for Tokyo is to draw up legislation to give the SDF the means to take proper action should Japan come under attack or similar crises.

Such emergency-contingency legislation would free the SDF from some of the present laws that restrict military operations — but in certain circumstances might compromise people’s rights including those related to private property.

On the agenda will be revisions to the SDF Law that will allow the seizure of goods and properties and use of land by the SDF in emergencies, as well as amendments to other laws to enable the forces to set up encampments and build roads for military vehicles.

The idea of such legislation has been and still remains a highly sensitive issue in Japan, whose Constitution renounces war and states that the nation will not maintain “land, sea and air forces.”

Opponents to new legislation to cover emergencies say enactment of such laws would be tantamount to preparing the nation for war.

Key government leaders, including Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Defense Agency chief Hosei Norota, have recently suggested such laws are needed, however.

Obuchi said in mid-March that it would require a “high-level political decision” to proceed with such emergency legislation, but added, “We fully recognize the importance of the issue and we would like to appropriately cope with it based on Diet deliberations and public opinion.”

Recent incidents, including Pyongyang’s launch of a missile over Japan in August and the intrusion into Japanese waters by two alleged North Korean spy ships in March, certainly sent alarm signals to conservative lawmakers, according to Lower House member Gen Nakatani of the Liberal Democratic Party.

In the ship intrusion, the SDF only fired warning shots because its use of force was effectively limited to that of the police under the SDF Law: The forces may not fire unless first fired upon.

“If Japan faces a serious emergency, neither the SDF nor the U.S. military will be able to act expeditiously under the current laws,” Nakatani said. “We must create a legal framework to cope with emergencies in Japan as soon as possible.”

The government has actually been considering emergency contingency legislation since 1977, when the administration of Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda formally launched a study on existing restrictions that could hinder SDF operations in crises.

To mitigate concerns over the move, the government clearly stated that the study was not aimed at preparing new legislation and that it would be conducted within the framework of the Constitution.

According to two reports submitted to the Diet in April 1981 and October 1984 as a result of the study, problems with existing laws could be divided into three categories — those under Defense Agency jurisdiction, those under the jurisdiction of other government bodies and those that fall under more than one body’s jurisdiction.

Studies involving the first and second categories have already been completed. The third category is still being mulled by the Cabinet’s Security Affairs Office.

The reports on the first and second categories point out that about 50 articles in the existing laws, including the SDF Law, Medical Service Law, Building Standard Law and government ordinances, must be amended to unfetter the SDF.

For example, even in an emergency, the SDF cannot repair a damaged bridge or expand a road to accommodate tanks because such operations violate the Road Traffic Law.

If the SDF wants to build a warehouse to store ammunition or a command base, those structures must pass basic standards, such as for durability, set by the Building Standard Law.

Should the SDF need to build a field hospital, the Medical Service Law would apply, requiring consultation with the health and welfare minister before construction could begin. Such a structure must also be equipped with certain facilities required by the law.

Issues that fall under the third category include legislation to ensure the safety of civilian aircraft and ships in danger zones, by putting them under SDF control. Laws to allow the building of prison camps have also been considered under the third category.

Until recently, such matters have long been considered political taboo.

“We could not openly discuss creating a legal framework for emergencies until 1994, when the Social Democratic Party, under its chairman and then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, acknowledged that the forces are constitutional and that the Japanese-U.S. Security Treaty is necessary,” said a senior government official who declined to be named.

Until 1993, during the LDP’s 38-year monopoly of power, the Socialists were a powerful opposition force, pledging to serve as a guardian of the war-renouncing Constitution and attacking the Japan-U.S. security alliance. Confrontation with the Socialists over security issues could have marred regular Diet business.

The government official predicted the remaining study on emergency legislation will take more time to be completed.

Within the LDP, a project team on crisis management, headed by former defense chief Fukushiro Nukaga, has recently been reviewing Japan’s legal framework to better cope with crises. His group plans to compile a report by early next month.

Issues discussed by the team include strengthening cooperation by the Defense, National Police and Maritime Safety agencies to deal with incidents such as the spy ship intrusion in March, and expanding the area the SDF guards — currently limited to airspace — to also cover territorial waters and land.

Guarding Japanese waters is currently the job of the Maritime Safety Agency. Under the SDF Law, the SDF can be deployed to conduct sea patrols where warning shots may have to be fired and unidentified vessels may have to be inspected if so requested by the MSA and approved by the prime minister and the Cabinet.

“Unless we clear those hurdles to protect our own country, we cannot move onto the next step, such as enabling Japanese forces to more actively participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations and other international operations,” said Nakatani, who is also a member of the project team.

Meanwhile, the movement within the LDP toward creating such new legislation has alarmed lawmakers who believe the emergency-contingency legislation under consideration may lead to unlimited expansion of the SDF role and result in restricting the public’s right to private property, the principle of local autonomy and many other rights spelled out in the Constitution.

“The government’s focus is not on defending Japan, but on creating a system that would force the Japanese people to cooperate with SDF and U.S. forces,” said Rikukai Sasaki, a Lower House member of the Japanese Communist Party.

It is still not clear how soon it will be until the LDP and the government act on such legislation.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka said recently that the government does not intend to enact new legislation or amend laws in the near future to allow the SDF to better cope with emergencies.

“We currently do not have a particular timetable for compiling such legislation,” he said in an apparent effort to allay concerns.

But unlike the days when the Socialists could be expected to put up great resistance, the Democratic Party of Japan — the current leading opposition force, which has many conservative lawmakers in its ranks — appears ready to endorse such legislation.