This is the first report in a four-part series looking at the past seven decades during which Japan maintained its national security while enjoying economic prosperity, and the ongoing social changes that could determine the country’s future course.

The 70th year since the end of World War II may be a watershed for the Self-Defense Forces if the military undergoes the historic changes planned by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Cabinet will soon submit to the Diet controversial security bills that will allow the SDF to engage in missions as part of Japan’s right to exercise collective self-defense — long considered prohibited under the pacifist Constitution — such as supporting overseas military operations of an ally, presumably the United States.

Later in the year, in line with those bills, Japan plans to revise the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, often referred to as the “war manual,” for the first time in 18 years.

“(The SDF) is stepping into a new, different dimension to integrate its operational equipment and the range of its activities with those of the United States,” said Tetsuo Maeda, a noted military analyst and former professor at Tokyo International University.

“For example, Prime Minister Abe said the SDF will become able to engage in some international joint missions, probably with the United States, in the Strait of Hormuz (in the Persian Gulf),” Maeda said. “This is an unprecedented leap forward” given the limited scope of SDF operations abroad in years past.

Abe has repeatedly emphasized that even under his reinterpretation of the Constitution, Japan would be allowed to engage in collective self-defense only when Japan’s vital interests are threatened, and that the use of force is kept to the minimum necessary. Otherwise it would exceed the scope of the war-renouncing Article 9, according to Abe.

But critics like Maeda charge that the vague wording of the Cabinet’s official reinterpretation of the Constitution might not work as an effective constraint on the SDF, as Abe has claimed.

For example, according to the new interpretation, Japan’s exercise of the right to collective self-defense would include the dispatch of minesweepers to the Persian Gulf if oil exports to Japan are cut off due to a military conflict in the region. Such a mission could eventually drag Japan into a war in the Middle East, critics say.

The Self-Defense Forces were established in the 1950s with the sole mandate of protecting Japan. The SDF’s activities are still technically limited to defending Japan, with only the minimum use of force allowed to fulfill that role, according to the government.

But in reality, the missions the military has engaged in have gradually expanded in scope throughout the postwar years.

The Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 stipulates that Japan forever renounce war as a sovereign right or the use of force as a means of settling international disputes, and thus Japan shall not maintain any ground, air, naval or other war potential.

The postwar government, guided by the U.S.-led Allied Occupation, first interpreted Article 9 to mean that Japan was not even allowed to possess a military for self-defense.

But the start of the Cold War in the late 1940s and the 1950 outbreak of the Korean War transformed the security environment for Japan as well as the needs of the United States, which drafted Article 9 during the 1945-1952 Occupation.

The U.S. prompted Japan to set up a paramilitary force to defend Japan that eventually became the SDF in 1954.

During the Cold War, the SDF’s commitment to defend Japan helped serve as an effective deterrent against the former Soviet Union for the Western bloc, said Noboru Yamaguchi, a former Ground Self-Defense Force lieutenant general and current professor at the National Defense Academy of Japan.

With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the importance of protecting sea lanes in the Persian Gulf, the key transport route for energy supplies to Japan, became underscored, reflecting Japan’s economic might, Yamaguchi said.

Amid this change in geopolitics, the 1990-1991 Gulf War helped force a change in the role of the SDF.

“The Gulf War ended up exposing” Japan’s inability to participate militarily with allies abroad, Yamaguchi said, a trauma that became “the starting point for Japan to consider how it can contribute to international peace within the constraints of the Constitution.”

During and after the Gulf War, the international community criticized Japan for its passive “checkbook diplomacy” because Japan depended heavily on oil exports from the Persian Gulf.

Since then, Foreign Ministry officials have tried hard to expand the SDF’s contribution to international military operations, although such missions have been largely limited to logistical support due to the constitutional limitations on the military’s role.

Meanwhile, Japan has been trying to strengthen its military cooperation with the U.S., the nation’s only military ally.

In 1997, Japan for the first time revised the U.S.-defense guidelines to expand the scope of bilateral military operations in order to contribute to “peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” a clear departure from a security policy solely focused on defending Japan.

This time, in preparing for the upcoming revision of the defense guidelines, Japan and the U.S. indicated in October that bilateral military cooperation will not be confined by geography and stressed the “global nature” of the U.S.-Japan military alliance.

Abe is also trying to strengthen the U.S.-Japan military alliance to counter the growing military power of China and North Korea’s continuing nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

He is also increasingly concerned by China’s recent and growing military assertiveness in connection with the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Chinese military and coast guard vessels continue to encroach on the islets, which China also claims and refers to as the Diaoyu.

When U.S. President Barack Obama clearly said in Tokyo in April that the U.S.-Japan security treaty would apply to the Senkakus, meaning the U.S. would be obliged to help defend the islets if a third party attempted to seize them, Japanese officials enthusiastically welcomed his commitment.

At the same time, Abe stressed that Japan must therefore work to strengthen its military cooperation with the United States.

Abe argued that the bilateral security alliance would be critically damaged if the SDF remains unable to help or protect the U.S. military in joint operations.

“U.S. President (Obama) has clearly said Article 5 of the security treaty would be applied to areas under Japan’s administration, including the Senkakus,” Abe told a Diet session on May 28, referring to the islets, which Taiwan also claims.

“But this means young American soldiers would risk their lives (to defend Japan),” Abe said. “Japan should promote its own efforts (to defend the Senkakus) and further strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.”

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