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The government and the ruling parties are making preliminary moves toward enacting legislation designed to meet future military crises directly involving Japan. The assumption is that in the event of an armed attack from abroad, the Self-Defense Forces will be mobilized to defend the country with the support of U.S. forces. Such joint military operations will be facilitated through a range of emergency measures, including control of private facilities, land expropriation and resident evacuation.

One wonders why the ruling coalition is taking active interest in such legislation now. There is no tension building in areas around Japan. There is virtually no possibility of this country being attacked by an outside force. But the most important factor is that no efforts have been made to build national consensus on whether to create such legislation.

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, referring to the coalition’s request to start preparations for “emergency legislation” in his policy speech to the Diet last month, said the government will “take fully into account what the ruling parties have in mind.” The statement — a de facto green light for such legislation — represents a step forward from the previous government position that called for only theoretical studies.

For now, the step is largely symbolic. With support for the Mori Cabinet slipping below 10 percent and with Mr. Mori himself under growing pressure to resign, it is virtually impossible to promote such legislation. Nevertheless, the significance of the Mori statement endorsing the coalition parties’ proposal to study the legislation cannot be dismissed out of hand.

The issue of contingency legislation first aroused public attention in 1965, when a confidential study by SDF officers assuming a war on the Korean Peninsula was disclosed in the Diet. In 1977, the Defense Agency started a formal study to thrash out the problems involved in such legislation. The study was completed in the 1980s, but legislative questions were left on the back burner.

Late in the 1990s, the issue came to the fore with the enactment of legislation governing new Japan-U.S. guidelines for defense cooperation. That legislation, including revisions to existing laws, enables the SDF to give logistical support to U.S. forces during military conflicts in adjacent areas. But the legal question of how to respond in the case of a direct attack on the nation was put off. There has been the persistent claim that emergency legislation should have been enacted before guidelines-related laws were passed.

The need for contingency laws seems to have acquired greater urgency in ruling circles since the inauguration of U.S. President George W. Bush, who has emphasized the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance. It seems likely that the Bush administration will urge Tokyo to address bilateral security issues more positively. Even so, the case for contingency legislation — which assumes aggression against Japan — does not sit well given the regional and global security environment. In the past decade, the world situation generally has been moving toward a further relaxation of tensions. In particular, there are growing signs of a thaw on the Korean Peninsula, with North and South Korea looking for reconciliation and cooperation following the historic inter-Korean summit last June.

It is also true, however, that the world is groping for a post-Cold War order. Ethnic and religious conflicts continue unabated, clouding the prospects for global peace and stability. These and other uncertainties in the world support the argument that Japan should, even in peacetime, be prepared for emergencies. But the rationale for preparedness may well be lost if such actions create new tensions in this part of the world. Contingency legislation must be premised not only on national consensus, but also on the understanding of the international community in general and neighboring nations in particular.

The most important prerequisite is conformity to the pacifist principles of the Constitution, which renounces the threat of use of force as a means of settling international disputes. It is also essential to maintain harmony with the principle of respect for basic human rights, because contingency laws will restrict certain private rights, such as property ownership.

How the proposed legislation will eventually take shape is anybody’s guess. The governing coalition itself is not united, with New Komeito, for one, taking a cautious stand. The opposition’s reaction is mixed. All that is to be expected, considering the complex and difficult problems involved. To reach the right conclusion it is necessary, first and foremost, to conduct an exhaustive national debate on the pros and cons under reliable political leadership, a leadership that does not exist in Japan at the moment.

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