The government has steadily expanded the activities of the Self-Defense Forces since the 1990s as the nation sought to play greater roles in international political and security affairs. Public perceptions toward the SDF have also changed in line with changes in the security environment, espe cially following North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests last year. Yet a unique background and history still set the SDF apart from other armed forces.

When were the Self-Defense Forces organized?

The SDF was launched in 1954. But its history began when the National Police Reserve, the predecessor of the Ground Self-Defense Force, formed in 1950 with 75,000 members at the request of the Allied Occupation. Half of its ranks were Imperial Japanese Army veterans.

The war-renouncing Constitution drafted under Occupation pressure effectively disarmed Japan. But when the Korean War broke out in 1950, the Allies needed to move the bulk of their forces from Japan to the Korean Peninsula and wanted Japan to defend its own territory.

From there, it steadily expanded. On July 1, 1954, the NPR was reorganized into the Ground and Maritime Self-Defense Forces, and the Air Self-Defense Force and the Defense Agency were created.

When the National Police Reserve was created, both the Japanese government and Allied forces wanted it to appear nonmilitary on the outside but to have a military organization.

NPR members were trained by the U.S. military and used American weapons. However, the government appointed police bureaucrats to its top posts so former military brass would not regain power.

Doesn’t the Constitution ban Japan from actually possessing a military?

Yes, on paper. Article 9 stipulates Japan cannot use force to resolve international disputes and, for that matter, will not maintain ground, air, naval or other war potential.

To justify the SDF’s existence, the government claims the Constitution does not ban the maintenance of an armed force for self-defense.

So government leaders have long been careful not to deem the SDF as having the potential to wage war. During Diet debate in 1953 before the SDF was created, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida described the SDF as a “military force without war potential” — an argument criticized as hocus-pocus.

Separately, U.S. Army Col. Frank Kowalski, who was in charge of building the NPR as deputy chief of civil affairs in Japan, said in a 1969 report titled “The Rearmament of Japan” that it is a “great lie” that the soldiers, guns, tanks, cannons, rockets and airplanes Japan possess do not constitute war potential.

What makes the SDF unique compared with other military forces?

International law recognizes that there are legal reasons to go to war, but Japan has renounced this right. So the SDF’s activities are strictly limited to self-defense and the minimum amount of force necessary to this end, according to the government.

The “minimum amount” is meticulously defined by the government. The SDF has been banned from possessing offensive weaponry, including long-range surface-to-surface missiles, aircraft carriers and long-range bombers.

SDF members also face tight legal constraints on the use of the weapons they are issued with. They are subjected to the same regulations as police in this respect, and are only allowed to use firearms to defend themselves or to repel an attack.

For example, until emergency response laws were enacted in 2003, SDF personnel were legally banned from driving vehicles with headlights turned off at night if they were in pursuit of terrorists because they had to comply with the Road Traffic Law.

Is it true there is no military law covering the SDF?

Yes. If a crime is committed by an SDF member while on duty, it is subject to the Criminal Code and an ordinary criminal trial, not a court martial. This poses problems in the event of an overseas mission, where members could be subject to the laws and court system of their deployment area.

Japan thus needs to conclude a form of reciprocity pact with areas where the SDF might be sent under which an accused offender could possibly be tried in a Japanese court.

The maximum penalty for SDF members who desert during combat is seven years in prison, according to the SDF law. Desertion under fire is still on the books in the U.S. as a potential capital offense, but it has been administered only once in modern times, in late 1945.

How many SDF members are there and how large is the defense budget?

The Ground Self-Defense Force’s ranks number 148,000, the Maritime Self-Defense 45,000 and the Air Self-Defense Force 46,000.

In fiscal 2007, which started April 1, 4.8 trillion yen was allocated for defense spending, down 0.3 percent from the previous year, accounting for 5.8 percent of the annual budget. Defense spending has been dropping since fiscal 2003 as the nation tries to reduce its fiscal deficit.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Japan ranked fourth in military spending in 2005, after the U.S., Britain and France.

Has public perceptions of the SDF changed in recent years?

When it was first organized in 1954, a large portion of the public viewed the SDF as unconstitutional and didn’t buy the government’s argument.

But as the public became more aware of potential regional threats, especially the North Korean missile and nuclear threat and China’s rapid military buildup, there have been greater calls for bolstered national security.

Negative perceptions of the SDF have also lessened after it engaged in disaster relief missions at home and abroad as well as in U.N.-led peacekeeping operations.

Have the SDF’s activities changed in the past decades?

Yes. The SDF’s overseas role has expanded since a law was enacted, after fierce Diet debate, to allow participation in a U.N.-led peacekeeping mission in Cambodia in 1992. It was the first time Japan sent troops overseas since World War II.

SDF personnel have joined peacekeeping missions in East Timor, Mozambique and on the Golan Heights.

But the biggest turning point was when Tokyo, at the strong urging of Washington and after enacting a new law, dispatched GSDF troops to war-ravaged Iraq in 2004. There was a great amount of debate on whether the SDF should be dispatched to a country where the troops may be involved in a conflict, although their mission was limited to noncombat duties due to constitutional restraints.

The SDF has also expanded its cooperation with the U.S. forces stationed in Japan.

In an agreement reached with Washington last May, Tokyo pledged to improve the SDF’s interoperability with the U.S. military in crisis planning, intelligence-sharing and cooperative international peace activities.