A year after Japan enacted legislation that lets it play a more muscular role in global security, the Self-Defense Forces are now in training for potential new missions.
Adequate training and government accountability over the changes seem to be key for implementing the legislation, as concerns linger among the public that troops could be drawn into combat despite the Constitution remaining pacifist.
“We’ve created a system … and we need the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces to put it into practice,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told troops on Sept. 12.
The legislation loosened constraints under the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9.
SDF personnel have begun training for new duties and the government is expected to decide by the end of October whether to assign an expanded mandate to those rotating in November into South Sudan, where they will replace a unit currently on deployment.
Ippeita Nishida, a research fellow on security issues at the Tokyo Foundation, said SDF activities with U.N. missions and other peace operations remain subject to heavy constraints, but other countries will likely view the changes as “considerable progress” in Japan’s ability to contribute.
Japan has gradually expanded the SDF’s role overseas since the 1990s as it explored ways to contribute to international peacekeeping efforts without contradicting Article 9, which bans the use of force to settle international disputes.
As a result, SDF members have taken part in a number of U.N. peacekeeping operations and in missions to support U.S.-led military forces operating overseas, with their activities focused on noncombat roles, such as infrastructure-building or providing logistical support, with the use of weapons heavily restricted.
The new legislation, which took effect in March, has further broadened the scope of potential SDF activities by easing the weapons use criteria, for example. During U.N. sanctioned operations, SDF members can now go to the rescue of U.N. staff and others under attack and help defend peacekeeping troop bases alongside other nations.
Changes in the scope of peacekeeping operations are not drastic compared with other reforms brought on by the legislation, Nishida said. But he added, various preparations are needed to carry out the new duties, noting that rescue missions can be “very complicated.”
“It’s not just moving from one point to another to rescue people. You have to know the area well and have to be skilled in making judgments on which route to take and what risks there will be, taking into account various scenarios,” he said.
Some senior SDF members admit potential further risk comes with expanded missions.
SDF troops can now fire warning shots should an armed group obstruct them. Previously they were only allowed to use weapons for self-defense and other emergencies.
But such actions can inflame a situation and invite counterattack, something that now has to be considered in operational training.
Adding to concerns is the unstable situation in South Sudan, which has suffered conflict between government and opposition forces. A peace deal was signed in 2015, but renewed fighting in Juba in July this year killed more than 270 people.
The Japanese government maintains that the mission satisfies the five principles required for its participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations, which include the existence of a cease-fire agreement and troops remaining impartial to the warring parties.
But some experts say South Sudan, where SDF units have been sent to develop infrastructure since 2012, does not meet the principles due to the deteriorating security and the changing nature of U.N. peacekeeping operations. Failure to meet the principles indicates that SDF activities risk violating Article 9.
“In present U.N. peacekeeping operations, peacekeepers are increasingly having to become actively involved in a conflict to serve their mandate of protecting civilians. … It doesn’t really matter whether there is a cease-fire agreement,” said Kenji Isezaki of Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, an expert in peace-building.
“If things are left this way, I’m afraid someone may die in the line of duty,” said Isezaki, who served in U.N. missions in East Timor and Sierra Leone.
Seeing lives lost during SDF missions — whether Japanese troops or local civilians — would likely trigger public outcry in Japan, which has never seen its troops fire a single bullet overseas since the 1954 launch of the SDF, a source of pride for many.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Sept. 16 that more people seem to have come to recognize the legislation is playing a “major role” in protecting people’s lives.
But the government apparently needs to do more to get its message across, as the legislation remains controversial, especially in terms of allowing Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense, or defending allies even in cases when Japan is not directly attacked.
Thousands of Japanese are joining lawsuits to challenge the constitutionality of the legislation, according to a lawyer representing concerned citizens, and many see it as an emotional, even personal, issue.
“When the security legislation was forced through, I sank into despair thinking that Japan has become a country that can send troops overseas to fight a war,” Hitomi Tsuji, a 49-year-old mother of two children told a hearing at the Tokyo District Court on Sept. 2.
“I have definitely not raised my children to have them take part in a war … I feel my right to live in peace has been violated,” she said.