National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Experts split on proposed SDF reforms; poll suggests public wary

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

Two noted experts interviewed by The Japan Times have contrasting views of Prime Minister Abe’s ambitions to alter Japan’s postwar security posture.

But what they agree on is that the bills adopted by the Cabinet on Thursday will, if passed by the Diet, increase the likelihood of Japan being drawn into combat overseas, which is something the country has not experienced since its surrender at the end of World War II.

Many of the proposed reforms are designed to remove restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces’ operations in joint missions with the United States and other foreign militaries.

The amendments the Abe government is seeking include removing a long-standing ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense. Another of the changes would see the SDF’s scope of operations expand when it comes to engaging in logistics support for multinational forces, like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former Defense Ministry official who served as assistant chief Cabinet secretary in charge of crisis management from 2004 to 2009, said the bills show Abe is trying to cater to the interests of the U.S. and not those of Japan itself.

“It means Japan will contribute to the peace of the U.S. and not the peace of Japan,” Yanagisawa said. “It also means that the SDF will drop its defense-only policy and act like a normal military.

“There will be casualties for certain” if the bills become law, he added.

Yanagisawa also said some of the legislation is ambiguously worded, including phrases that outline under what conditions Japan can use the right of collective self-defense.

The bills say Japan can resort to collective self-defense only when there is a “clear danger” to the country’s survival due to an armed attack on a country with which Tokyo has “close ties” and there are “no other appropriate means” to protect Japanese citizens.

When pressed to outline a scenario that would meet those conditions, Abe referred to a maritime mine-sweeping operation, with no cease-fire in place, in the Strait of Hormuz because 80 percent of crude oil shipments to Japan pass through that narrow waterway in the Middle East. A crisis in the strait could pose a “clear danger” to Japan’s survival, Abe said.

“If that example is correct, then (situations where Japan can exercise the right) will expand infinitely . . . given that Japan depends on imports for most things except for water and rice,” Yanagisawa said. “After all, it would expand the scope of discretion of the government.”

But Hikaru Tomizawa, a former chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defense Force, welcomed Thursday’s Cabinet approval as “a step forward.”

Tomizawa agreed that the bills could increase the risk of Japan being involving in combat operations overseas as the bills propose expanding the logistics support that Japan can provide to foreign forces.

“A logistics unit is the one most likely to be targeted,” Tomizawa said, explaining that since it provides supplies such as food and ammunition to the front line, from a combatant’s point of view, “it’s the most effective target.”

Still, Tomizawa supports the change. It is about time that the nation abandons its introspective pacifism and contributes to international security, even if it means raising the risks that SDF personnel face, Tomizawa argued.

“My fear is that if Japan remains committed only to its own safety, turning a blind eye to situations in other countries, we may eventually be isolated” in the world, Tomizawa said. “It is a grim task . . . but I believe we have an obligation” to contribute to international peace.

Under the current legal constraints, SDF troops engaging in a United Nations-led peace keeping operations are not allowed to do anything even if children were to be attacked by combatants right in front of them, he said.

“Viewed by a foreign country, the SDF is a military. Yet it cannot do what other militaries can naturally do,” he said.

However, polls have suggested that many Japanese are wary of overhauling the country’s security policies so quickly.

A poll by Jiji Press last month found that 64 percent of about 1,300 respondents hoped that the government would allow time to debate the proposed security reforms sufficiently, and that lawmakers would not be pressured to enact them by the end of the current Diet session.

In the poll, 15 percent of respondents said the bills should be scrapped, and only 14 percent supported Abe’s plan to enact them in the current Diet session.

“The government must clearly inform the Diet of the risks (of enacting the bills). And the public needs to think about the possibility that Japan becomes a country where we see SDF personnel returning from overseas missions in coffins,” Yanagisawa said.

Like his grandfather Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe has been an earnest supporter of the Japan-U.S. military alliance and has tried to revise war-renouncing Article 9.

To alter the Constitution, a national referendum must be held and a majority of voters must support the move. Polls suggest a majority of voters would not support revising Article 9.

Abe has apparently switched his strategy as a result, and is now trying to revise various security laws to remove as many legal restrictions as possible on the SDF’s operations under the current charter.