Days before the opening of this year’s ordinary Diet session, Lower and Upper House security committees held special sessions focusing on Japan’s controversial dispatch of a naval unit to the sea off Oman and Yemen amid still-high military tensions between Iran and the United States.

Friday’s parliamentary debates made at least two things clear while underlining tough legal questions confronting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration amid the Iran-U.S. confrontation:

Firstly, Abe’s government won’t express any judgment on whether the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was an act of self-defense as claimed by U.S. President Donald Trump, one of the world leaders closest to Abe.

Secondly, the Maritime Self-Defense Force unit could be vulnerable and powerless in any military conflict in the Middle East, given strict legal restrictions over the use of its weapons under the war-renouncing Constitution.

“(The unit) may escort Japan-related ships but in fact won’t be able to use any weapons to defend them if the situation escalates (into a military conflict),” said opposition lawmaker Koichiro Gemba, who served as foreign minister from 2011 to 2012.

“You are concerned, aren’t you?” Gemba asked Defense Minister Taro Kono during the session. In response, Kono only said that the current security situation is not as tense as Gemba claimed.

The war-renouncing Article 9 of the postwar Constitution has been interpreted as strictly limiting the use of force to self-defense, and any overseas dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces is a politically sensitive matter.

Amid pressure from Washington, Abe’s government decided to dispatch the Takanami, a 4,650-ton destroyer, and two P-3C anti-submarine patrol airplanes to the Middle East.

To avoid lengthy and tough debates in the Diet, Abe tapped an existing law to send the MSDF unit for an “investigation and research” mission, which was criticized by opposition lawmakers as a constitutional loophole. While on the investigation and research mission, the MSDF unit would not be allowed to use weapons to defend any other ships.

In an emergency, its mission can be switched to “maritime policing activities” to escort oil tankers and other Japan-related ships, the Defense Ministry says.

But under international law, an MSDF ship conducting maritime policing operations would be allowed to use weapons only to defend Japanese-flagged ships, although the vast majority of oil bound for Japan is carried on foreign-flagged tankers operated by Japanese transport firms, due to costs.

During Friday’s session, the transport ministry revealed that 650 Japanese-flagged ships traveled through the Strait of Hormuz in 2018, while as many as 2,900 foreign-flagged ships operated by Japanese transport companies passed through the same waterway, including tankers carrying oil bound for Japan.

Opposition lawmaker Seiji Maehara pointed out that the government dispatched an MSDF unit in 2009 on a maritime policing operation to the sea off Somalia to guard ships against pirates. Later the same year, the government enacted a special law to allow the MSDF unit to fire a warning shot at the body of a pirate ship to defend Japanese- or foreign-flagged ships.

The enactment of the special law shows that the government had concluded “the maritime policing operation would not work” for anti-piracy mission, Maehara said.

Risks involving the MSDF dispatch this time are probably much higher than in 2009, as on June 13 a Panama-flagged tanker operated by a Japanese transport firm was attacked by an unidentified armed group near the Strait of Hormuz.

During the same session, opposition lawmakers also repeatedly asked if Tokyo supports Trump’s claim that the U.S. assassination of Soleimani, which drastically raised tensions in the Middle East earlier this month, was an act of self-defense acceptable under international law.

Trump claimed the commander had planned attacks on four U.S. embassies, but U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he hasn’t seen any evidence to support such an assertion, raising questions over the legitimacy of the killing, which at one time raised fears of a full-scale war between Iran and the U.S.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said that, because Japan is not directly involved in the incident, it is not in a position to comment on whether the assassination violates international law or not.

He also pointed out Washington has reported to the U.N. Security Council that the assassination was conducted as a response to attacks already staged by Iran and was not a pre-emptive assault, which is often regarded as a violation of international law.

Opposition lawmaker Gemba, however, pointed out that Japan has openly maintained that Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula “is not acceptable under international law,” even though Japan was not directly involved in that incident either.

“Rule of law is extremely important for Japan. (The government) should not accept what the U.S. argues just because it is the U.S. that says so,” Gemba said.

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