When Japan makes its case for the rule of law and tries to ensure maritime security, the spotlight often falls on its Self-Defense Forces, an “armed organization” whose use of force is strictly limited under the pacifist Constitution.
But no less important is the Japan Coast Guard, the protector of maritime order, amid increasing calls for Japan to boost its defenses as the security environment in the region evolves.
The Coast Guard conducts day-to-day patrol activities not just around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — uninhabited islets at the heart of tensions with China — but the whole of the Japanese archipelago.
With territorial waters and an exclusive economic zone 12 times larger than Japan’s land area, the Japan Coast Guard has assumed greater responsibility for the safety of Japan in recent years. As a law enforcement agency, however, a clear distinction is drawn with the SDF.
“This is the Japan Coast Guard. Who is the captain? Do you have your boat’s identification?” a Coast Guard officer aboard the 204-ton patrol boat Matsunami asked a crew member of a nearby boat during a training session for foreign coast guard and maritime law enforcement officials in Tokyo Bay in June.
In the drill, the officer asks the captain of the boat to show necessary documents and outline its travel plan, checking the identities of all crew members on the boat.
Around 20 foreign officials observed the drill, which was designed to show how Japan Coast Guard officers normally board private and commercial ships to conduct inspections.
The Japan Coast Guard’s officers also deal with maritime crime such as smuggling, poaching, illegal immigration, counterterrorism and piracy, as well as rescue operations.
The 14-year-old training program is symbolic of Japan’s support for other nations that has focused on capacity building in nonmilitary fields in keeping with the spirit of the war-renouncing Constitution.
The Japan Coast Guard has worked with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a governmental body that provides technical aid under Japan’s official development assistance.
Just as the nationalities of the participants were diverse, so were their knowledge and skills to help ensure maritime security. The domestic laws by which their operations are bound are also different.
This year, the officials came from eight countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Somalia. They stayed in Japan for roughly a month to learn about the techniques the Japan Coast Guard has acquired since its establishment in 1948.
Japanese officials involved in the training said one goal was to enable participants to find something they can use in their daily operations. The officials also hope the program will improve their maritime law enforcement skills, contributing to the shared goal of safer seas.
Since 2001, more than 240 people from Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East have come to Japan to learn about maritime law enforcement, as the need to secure sea lanes like the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz against piracy and other threats has gained urgency.
In the past, Japan provided patrol boats to Indonesia as an exemption to its tradition of not exporting weaponry to ensure maritime security. There are similar plans in the works for the Philippines and Vietnam, two countries embroiled in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
“It goes without saying that providing equipment is not the ultimate goal. We need to train people as well,” said an official who was involved in the provision of the boats to Indonesia.
“Suppose Japan gives patrol ships or aircraft to another country, and the country does not have the resources and skills to operate them. It’s like sitting on a gold mine (without being able to mine it),” he said.
Faced with a shift in the power balance in the Asia-Pacific region, domestic debate is now raging over what Japan needs to do to contribute to global peace while defending national interests, with the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeking an enhanced role for the SDF.
Repeated intrusions by China Coast Guard ships into Japanese waters around the Senkakus have led to calls for Japan to be better prepared for “gray zone” incidents that stop short of military attacks.
Abe has said Japan should do its part in securing vital sea lanes like the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the country’s crude oil imports are shipped. An expanded SDF role, he said, may include mine-sweeping operations, traditionally treated as involving use of force.
Some experts, however, say the country’s nearly 70-year history as a pacifist state is being belittled and left out of the ongoing debate on security.
“Japanese people are now being forced to rethink various aspects of what has previously formed the ‘pacifist brand,’ ” said Miho Aoi, a professor specializing in the Constitution at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.
“We need to think hard about whether it is really worth making drastic changes toward something more militaristic,” Aoi said. “Otherwise, Japan’s pacifist stance will be seriously called into question.”