PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – On Jan. 20, Defense Minister Taro Kono explained to an Upper House committee that along with the Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel that would be deploying to the Persian Gulf, one MSDF officer had already started working at U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) as of Jan. 16.
The new maritime deployment has already come under scrutiny amid escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, so Kono was clear in explaining that the officer is only at the U.S. command as a liason officer (renraku-kan) for information-gathering purposes.
This distinction of the member as a “liaison officer” is critical and provides a window into how Japan’s security practices are unlike any other global power. This is owing of course to Article 9 of the Constitution. Although it may seem far-fetched that the deployment of a single officer has a direct connection to the war-renunciation clause of the Constitution, it indeed does and highlights the broader-reaching but lesser-known effects of this foundational element of Japanese security.
Liaison officers are common across the world’s militaries. Better known by their acronym LNO, liaison officers can operate at different headquarters within their own country’s security-related organizations or at foreign headquarters across the globe. Their function is to act as information gatherers, go-betweens and “fixers” — essentially they work to bridge organizations that require coordination.
To some, Japan may have a shockingly high number of liaison officers in unexpected places. For example, the Self-Defense Forces have LNOs assigned to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii and Special Operations Command in Florida, NATO headquarters in Brussels and NATO Maritime Command in the United Kingdom, among many others. The number of liaison officers has increased in recent years, their deployment usually serving as a preceding action to greater SDF involvement in security activities related to the foreign host organization. Thus, this most recent deployment of a MSDF officer to NAVCENT is well-precedented.
In his Diet testimony, Kono was right to make the distinction of the MSDF member’s function compared with other types of officials embedded in separate organizations. This is principally because LNOs do not fall within their host’s chain of command. In other words, a commander cannot issue orders to a liaison officer that the LNO is then obligated to follow. The LNO still works for his/her home organization and reports to a separate boss, whereas other embeds such as foreign exchange officers become fully integrated members of their hosting staff.
This policy of only using liaison officers in foreign operational commands has its roots in Japan’s highest law of the land. Many observers understand the restrictions that Article 9 places on Japan’s ability to use military force, but the issue of liaison officers versus other types of embedded officials highlights just one of the further reaching implications.
In this case, the Article 9 issue at play is known as ittaika, a term for which there is no appropriate English translation because no such concept exists in security institutions anywhere else in the world. Ittaika literally means “to integrate” or “to become one,” and the policy under the Constitution means that the SDF is prohibited from integrating into any command and control structure where foreign militaries operate with different rules for use of military force.
Given Japan’s unique restrictions, the ittaika policy means that SDF personnel can join command structures responsible for policing actions (such as anti-piracy), but no operational commands that have the potential for running combat operations.
This rule applies whether it involves a full unit, a few ships or a single officer, which is why Japan can participate in (and lead) Combined Task Force-151 anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden but cannot deploy even a single exchange officer to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, since INDOPACOM could feasibly become a war-fighting command.
It is also why Japan is unable to act like traditional military allies that operate within a unified command headquarters like NATO in Europe or the Combined Forces Command in South Korea. Satohiro Akimoto’s article in The Japan Times earlier this month advocated for a combined operational command with the United States, but given the ittaika rule, any such headquarters would still not look like any other that exists in the world.
When the government reinterpreted the Constitution in July 2014, ittaika was among the policies altered. The alteration, however, came in the form of geographic relationship to combat, not in the relationship to command and control structures. Ittaika used to require the SDF to operate in the rear area, but following the reinterpretation, the SDF can now operate in noncombat areas (hisentochiiki) close to the front lines. Still, regardless of their proximity to combat forces, the SDF will always operate under an independent command and control structure.
The restraints that come from the ittaika rule do not prevent Japan from playing a meaningful role with international partners, but it does present circumstances that differ from any traditional security relationship. As Japan continues to develop its partnerships with other middle powers like Australia, the United Kingdom, France and the Philippines, ittaika and other unique features of Japanese security practice will need to be considered to maximize the utility of cooperative activities. It is helpful for both Japanese decision-makers and prospective partners to understand the meaning and limits of these special policies.
In the meantime, it is important that observers, analysts and policymakers all remember that Article 9 has shaped the SDF in ways that are deeper than most realize. Ittaika ensures that although the SDF may maintain presence in foreign military commands, it is not integration. While that may be limiting in some forms, it does not prevent meaningful cooperation — it simply means that the cooperation must happen in its own unique way. Fortunately, that’s why LNOs are there to facilitate.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan, and was an officer in the U.S. Air Force.