A member of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force prepares for a mission at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in December.

A member of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force prepares for a mission at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in December. (David Owsianka/U.S. Air Force photo)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — For the first time, Japan has defended U.S. military aircraft under security legislation passed in 2016 allowing its Self-Defense Forces to aid American military units.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confirmed the mission this week during a policy speech before the Diet, but did not provide further details.

“With tensions growing over North Korea, the Self-Defense Forces carried out a mission to protect U.S. vessels and aircraft for the first time,” Abe said on Monday. “An alliance gets stronger if the partners can help each other. The Japan-U.S. alliance has without a doubt become stronger than ever.”

The comments were the first confirmation of a cooperative U.S.-Japan air mission. Last spring, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier JS Izumo escorted the USNS Richard E. Byrd off Chiba Prefecture to resupply an unnamed warship that was helping defend against North Korean missiles.

Japanese officials remained tight-lipped about the air operation. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura would not provide details while speaking to reporters on Monday. Spokesmen for the Defense Ministry and Japan Air Self-Defense Force also declined to provide details.

U.S. Forces Japan did not reply to requests seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.

Japan’s national Diet passed the controversial security laws in September 2015 allowing Japanese forces to defend close allies if under attack. The legislation went into effect in March 2016 despite opposition from most Japanese citizens.

Prior to that, Japanese forces could not step in and defend U.S. troops unless Japan was also being attacked. The laws also make it easier for Japanese forces to deploy globally.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Grafenwoehr, Germany, for Stars and Stripes since 2024. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Okinawa, Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the news organization. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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