MORIOKA, IWATE PREF. – The Ground Self-Defense Force on Monday partially opened to the media exercises for potentially dangerous new mission parameters during U.N. peacekeeping operations in South Sudan starting next month.
The new parameters, enabled by security legislation that took effect in March, have stirred controversy in Japan as they could draw the Self-Defense Forces into combat for the first time since World War II.
GSDF personnel will have more leeway in their use of weapons, which had previously been limited to self-defense purposes and dealing with emergencies. Citing security, the GSDF did not allow the media to view training involving weapons use.
The training shown to the media involved personnel from the GSDF’s 9th Division in a training area near Camp Iwate.
One exercise involved a scenario in which GSDF personnel were going to the aid of U.N. staff inside a building surrounded by rioters. In another exercise, GSDF personnel simulated joining troops of another country in defending a U.N. peacekeeping camp from rioters.
The government will decide whether to assign the new mission parameters to the next batch of GSDF personnel to travel to South Sudan, taking into account the security situation there and the level of skill the GSDF personnel display in training. The new troops will replace a 350-member unit currently in the country.
Japan has been sending engineering units to the U.N. mission in South Sudan, called UNMISS, since 2012 for the construction of roads and other infrastructure. The country gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
The next unit will likewise engage in infrastructure building as its main task.
Political parties in the opposition camp have been concerned that the new mission parameters ill expose GSDF personnel to higher risks, citing the seemingly deteriorating situation in South Sudan.
Major fighting erupted in July between government troops and rebel forces in the capital Juba despite a peace deal last year. The situation remains unstable, with UNMISS saying in a statement Oct. 12 that it is “extremely concerned” over increased reports of violence and armed conflict in the country.
The Abe government, however, has maintained that the situation in Juba, where the GSDF personnel are stationed, is relatively calm and it is leaning toward giving the new assignments to the next batch of troops.
The SDF began training in August to put into practice a series of changes brought on by the new security legislation, through which the government hopes Japan will play a more active role in regional security and international peace-building efforts.
Assigning new duties to the SDF may mark an important step in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of “proactive contribution to peace,” but seeing SDF personnel embroiled in military actions is likely to be controversial in a country where many people cherish the pacifism expressed in the postwar Constitution.
The SDF has never fired a shot in anger during overseas missions since it was created in 1954 launch. The Constitution bans the use of force to settle international disputes.