The Diet has begun deliberations on a bill to abolish a legal mechanism that ensures the supremacy of high-ranking civilian officials of the Defense Ministry over uniformed officers of the Self-Defense Forces. The bill was tabled just as the Abe administration is seeking to substantially expand the scope of the SDF’s activities overseas, including collective self-defense missions with Japan’s allies and greater cooperation with the U.S. military on a possibly global scale.

If enacted the bill, which will revise Article 12 of the law for establishment of the Defense Ministry, will remove a key layer of civilian control of the SDF, making it more difficult for civilian defense officials to keep tabs on the actions and decisions of uniformed SDF officers. The Diet should carefully scrutinize the bill and expose its dangerous nature to the public.

Article 12 currently says the head of the defense minister’s secretariat and the heads of various bureaus of the Defense Ministry will assist the minister in matters concerning the policies and basic plans of each branch of the SDF and the Joint Staff Office, and the minister’s instructions to and oversight of the SDF and the office. This provision serves as the basis for the supremacy of high-ranking civilians defense officials over uniformed SDF officers. Under the proposed revision, the head of the ministry’s secretariat and the bureau chiefs will assist the defense minister at a level on par with the chief of each SDF branch and the head of the Joint Staff Office.

In addition the bill will abolish the Bureau of Operational Policy and integrate it into the Joint Staff Office. This change will strip civilian officials of their power to devise operational plans for the maritime, air and ground branches of the SDF and to seek the defense minister’s approval for these plans. Uniformed SDF officers will take over such duties.

Since the revision will eliminate a layer of civilian control and enable uniformed officers to directly assist the defense minister, it may be conducive to making quick decisions in the event of a crisis and speed up communication between uniformed officers and the defense chief. But it will likely give uniformed officers a greater say within the Defense Ministry by increasing their influence over the defense minister. In the worst case, there may emerge situations in which uniformed SDF officers effectively play a greater role than elected lawmakers in the nation’s decision-making on defense matters, thereby threatening the democratic principle of civilian control of the SDF.

With uniformed SDF officers growing increasingly frustrated with the limits on their powers, actions have been taken over the years that chipped away at the supremacy of civilian defense officials. When the Defense Agency, the predecessor of the Defense Ministry, and the SDF were created in 1954, a system was introduced in which high-ranking civilian officials, including bureau chiefs and the chief of the defense chief’s secretariat, were concurrently appointed as defense counselors to advise the defense chief on broad, basic policies related to the SDF. The system was meant to enable civilian officials to assist lawmakers who had been tapped as defense chiefs but were not well-versed in defense matters. However, opposition on the part of uniformed officers to this system led to its abolition in 2009. Another rule that prohibited uniformed SDF officers from directly contacting politicians was abolished in 1997, which made it easier for them to influence politicians.

Civilian control of the SDF was introduced to prevent crucial mistakes that were committed before and during World War II regarding the control of the military. In the 1930s and 1940s, due to the interpretation of the Meiji Constitution’s stipulation that the supreme prerogative to command and control the military belonged to the Emperor, the government was unable to interfere with the Imperial armed forces over military matters, such as defense planning, military operations, and training and punishment of their members.

From 1936 to 1945, a system was in force that required army and navy ministers to be actively serving generals, lieutenant generals, and admirals or vice admirals, respectively. This system enabled the military to wield the power to topple an administration by refusing to send a minister to or withdrawing a minister from the Cabinet. The absence of civilian control over the military by politicians and government officials led the Imperial armed forces to make gravely erroneous decisions and to even control the government, thus playing havoc with the fate of the nation. As a result, they dragged Japan first into a protracted war with China and then into a devastating war with the United States.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other members of his administration have said that civilian control of the SDF will be intact even with the proposed amendment for a number of reasons: First, the prime minister — elected by the Diet, which represents the people — remains its supreme commander. Second, the defense minister — a civilian position — commands the forces. Third, the defense budget needs to be approved by the Diet. And fourth, the SDF’s major defense activities must be endorsed by the legislature.

But in 1970, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato stated in the Diet that civilian control of the SDF consisted of control by the Diet, control by the Cabinet, control by civilian officials within the then Defense Agency and control by the then National Defense Council, which was composed of the prime minister and relevant Cabinet ministers. This makes it clear that the supremacy of civilian defense officials over uniformed officers is an indispensable component of civilian control of the SDF.

In a recent news conference, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani denied that the system of civilian supremacy over uniformed officers had been introduced in view of the lessons of the 1930s and ’40s. Such a view is not only outrageous but shows his lack of understanding of Japan’s history in those years. Given the Abe administration’s defense policies, it is all the more important for lawmakers to confirm the importance of civilian control of the SDF and pursue ways to strengthen the system rather than to undermine it.

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