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Since the Korean War, shifting realities changed Japan's perceptions of defense

A U.S. Marine with 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, trains with a soldier from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force during Exercise Iron Fist 2014 aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., Feb. 8, 2014.

TOKYO — The Japanese government has expanded the role of the Self-Defense Forces to reflect international developments and the changing times. Japan is now at a turning point for its national security strategy, with the Cabinet approving a reinterpretation of the Constitution to allow limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense. The national security system has come a long way since the end of World War II.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers, called on the Japanese government to rearm. There was an absence in military power that needed to be filled after the U.S. military stationed in Japan was deployed on the Korean Peninsula.

In response, the National Police Reserve with a capacity of 75,000 personnel was established under the instruction of the U.S. Military Advisory Group. The NPR was transformed into the National Safety Forces in 1952.

In 1954, Japan and the United States signed the Japan-U.S. Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement, meaning Japan had a legal obligation to beef up its defense power in return for economic assistance from the United States.

Furthermore, the Self-Defense Forces Law was enacted, which clearly stipulates the aims of the nation's national defense. The three branches of the SDF were also established — Ground, Maritime and Air.

Meanwhile, political parties including the now-defunct Japan Socialist Party and the Japanese Communist Party began arguing that such movements went against the Constitution. However, the government continued to stress that the right of self-defense is an inalienable right of a nation. The government also maintained its consistent stance that the minimum power necessary to defend the nation does not fall under use of military force, which is prohibited by the Constitution.

A more active role

Established in July 1954, the Self-Defense Forces began developing and strengthening their defense capabilities during the Cold War era of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, bracing for the possibility of Soviet troops landing in Japan.

Following the Cold War, Maritime Self-Defense Force minesweepers were dispatched to the Persian Gulf in 1991 when the Gulf War ended — the first overseas deployment of Japanese defense personnel since the end of World War II. However, the government was criticized for its so-called checkbook diplomacy — its mainly financial contribution to the conflict — leading to questions about international contributions using personnel.

During Diet deliberations on the U.N. Peacekeeping Activities Cooperation Law enacted in 1992 after the Persian Gulf War, a range of issues were raised including the relationships between "use of force" prohibited under Article 9 of the Constitution and "use of weapons" by SDF members and preconditions for participation in international peace cooperation activities.

The government expressed its view that SDF members engaged in such peacekeeping missions are allowed to protect their lives as measures of self-defense and emergency evacuation. Weapon usage kept to a minimum does not fall under the use of force, thereby not counting as a violation of the Constitution.

As for participation in U.N. peacekeeping activities, the government provided five principles:

  • A ceasefire agreement must be in place between relevant parties in a conflict.
  • Relevant parties in a conflict have given consent to the deployment of SDF units.
  • Neutrality must be maintained by personnel.
  • Units must withdraw if any of these conditions are no longer met.
  • Personnel are allowed to use only minimum weapons necessary.

These principles are stricter than conditions set by other nations.

Limited activities

The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation were compiled in 1978 to formulate a response if the then Soviet Union invaded Japan.

The guidelines were revised in 1997 in the wake of North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. As it became more realistic for emergencies to occur on the Korean Peninsula, reactions to such emergencies were also newly added to the guidelines.

Not long after this revision, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile into the sea off Japan's Sanriku region in 1998. Following this launch, Japan began introducing a missile defense system and information communication satellites.

The government also enacted in 1999 a law governing Self-Defense Forces operations to assist U.S. military forces in an emergency in areas surrounding Japan, which stipulated that the SDF could collaborate with U.S. forces should an emergency occur.

To avoid a situation in which the SDF's actions constituted "integration with the use of force," which is prohibited by the Constitution, the emergency measures limited SDF's missions only to "rear-areas" where there is no combat.

In addition, the SDF's activities were limited to transportation and supply for U.S. forces. Such activities as refueling and maintaining U.S. fighters engaged in combat missions were excluded.

After the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, U.S. forces began military actions in Afghanistan under the banner of fighting a "war on terror." To assist U.S. forces on such missions, the Japanese government established a special measures law on terrorism.

Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels were dispatched to the Indian Ocean to refuel other countries' warships engaging in antiterrorist missions.

In 2003, Ground Self-Defense Force units were also sent to Iraq to assist in the country's postwar reconstruction. For the mission, GSDF activities were limited to noncombat areas to avoid any use of force.

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