TOKYO — Shortly after his party’s decisive victory in summer elections, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made it clear he would like to give his 250,000-member strong Japan Self-Defense Force more latitude when it comes to fighting.
But changing the minds of his opponents, neighboring countries, and even his own people will be an uphill fight.
Article 9 of the Japanese constitution — which was written by U.S. planners after World War II — prevents the SDF from getting involved in many combat situations. Troops are not allowed to defend a U.S. Navy ship under attack, a United Nations medical mission being fired upon by guerrilla fighters, or even their own citizens involved in overseas aid work.
Abe has signalled he thinks it’s time for a change and is seeking a reinterpretation of current law. Shortly after the June elections, officials talked of a move that would allow the SDF to defend others by the end of the year, a time frame that most experts think would be nearly impossible to meet.
It will likely take years to change the law, analysts say, because of mistrust among both Asian neighbors and Japan’s own citizenry, who wonder how far down the road to militarization could this legal reinterpretation take a nation that is long sworn to pacifism.
Yuichi Hosoya, a member of the panel charged with making recommendations to Abe on how to implement collective self-defense, avoided any time projections while talking with reporters last Tuesday.
Collective self-defense “is a very sensitive and delicate topic at the moment,” Hosoya said. “There are many misperceptions, not only in Japan, but outside Japan as well.”
The “misperceptions” Hosoya referred could also be termed “opposition.” Several recent Japanese newspaper polls show majorities of the public against a reinterpretation to allow collective self-defense.
However, support may depend on how the question is asked and how broad that conception of collective self-defense appears.
In January, a Kyodo News poll found that 70 percent favored easing restrictions on the SDF to allow them to rescue Japanese citizens overseas. Ten Japanese hostages had died earlier that month during an attack by al-Qaida-linked terrorists.
“There is no separate rule of engagement for the JSDF overseas,” Hosoya said in a response to a Stars and Stripes question. “The penal code will be applicable to an act by a member of the JSDF, if and when he or she shoots the terrorist outside Japan, as if he or she had shot down a Japanese citizen in Japan.”
However, Abe has clearly stated that he wants Japan’s conception of self-defense to go well beyond hostage rescues.
There is still much debate on whether the new interpretation would be used to defend every moderately Japan-friendly group that requests aid, or just its closest allies. One of Abe’s greatest security fears is letting its 60-year alliance with the United States fall apart because of a legal quagmire.
“Please imagine a situation where a U.S. warship protecting waters around Japan comes under a missile attack when our Aegis ship is nearby,” Abe told reporters in July. “If we don’t shoot it down despite our capability, the American ship will sink and many young lives will be lost. Can we maintain the alliance under such a circumstance? That’s among the real questions we face.”
Many doubt that Japan would let its ally fend for itself, even with the law as it is.
Stars and Stripes has spoken with at least eight U.S. Navy ship officers in the past four years about Abe’s scenario, and not one expressed any hesitation that the Maritime Self-Defense Force ships they train with would aid them in a side-by-side battle, and deal with the legal consequences later.
Officially, the U.S. State Department considers Japan’s collective self-defense debate an internal matter. However, Japanese cabinet officials said they discussed it with Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a visit to Tokyo on Oct. 3.
Kerry, Hagel and their Japanese counterparts announced that the two nations would revamp the security guidelines that spell out each alliance partner’s role in peacetime and war, for the first time since 1997.
The guidelines are scheduled to be complete by December 2014, and will need to be written with an eye toward Japan’s intentions on collective self-defense, said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In crafting its policy on collective self-defense, Japan will aim to send a dual message. It must reassure nations like China and South Korea — where Japan is unpopular because of a perception of not properly apologizing for its WWII-era aggression — that it is not returning to its imperial past.
But Japan also wants to show its teeth, in order to deter North Korea’s increasingly capable missile program. It also wants to show Beijing that Tokyo will not back down on its administration and ownership of the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited rocks claimed by the Chinese, which have sparked maritime incidents and fighter-jet alerts between the two nations during the past year.
“The U.S. alliance will play a strong role, I think, in assuring that the deterrent is effective, that preparation and crisis management will not exacerbate the situation, and that they will lend themselves to stability in the end,” Smith said.
However, Smith expects the move toward collective self-defense to take two or three years – and that’s a good thing, she said. Both the Japanese public and Abe’s coalition partner, the New Komeito party, would need time to feel comfortable with changes to Japan’s defense standing.
Japanese officials say they would weigh any use of collective self-defense with standards of necessity, proportionality and whether action constituted a minimum response. Hosoya also suggested that the SDF would need to be asked for help first.
“I don’t expect a radical, fundamental change will take place,” Hosoya said.
Abe’s nationalist leanings have been well-noted in the Chinese and South Korean press. Chinese officials have generally remained quiet thus far, but commentators have questioned how far Japan might stretch the bounds of necessity and proportionality.
Meanwhile, the historical grievances against Japan in both countries have left analysts skeptical that Abe can mount a successful diplomatic campaign.
“It won’t go smoothly,” said Masashi Nishihara, president of the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Peace and Security, and former Japanese National Defense Academy president. “They will go through a backlash … [but] it is wrong to hold back just because there will be fierce opposition.”
It could go easier for Abe on his home turf, assuming his administration maintains something near its current popularity. There is no talk of abandoning Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which renounces Japan’s right to wage war. Nor is anyone suggesting that Japan launch a purely offensive operation.
If Abe keeps his vision modest and proceeds at a conservative pace, he may be able to convince an electorate that has warily eyed both a successful North Korean missile launch, and a rise in tensions with China since January.
“I think people in Japan are much more alert to the fact that there is danger in their neighborhood,” Smith said.