The Japanese coast guard veseel Shikine trains with Maritime Self-Defense Force ships east of Oshima Island, Dec. 19, 2022.

The Japanese coast guard veseel Shikine trains with Maritime Self-Defense Force ships east of Oshima Island, Dec. 19, 2022. (JMSDF)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Japan has addressed a 69-year-old gap in its self-defense measures by creating a process that gives the Ministry of Defense control of the coast guard in the event of a war.

The coast guard is barred by law from operating as a military force, but Article 80 of the 1954 Self-Defense Forces Act permits the defense minister to take control of the seaborne force in the event of hostilities, according to a ministry statement Friday.

Under new provisions, effective immediately, the coast guard in wartime would continue its lifesaving and law enforcement missions. The non-military characteristics of the agency “will not change” under ministry control, the statement said.

Japan increasingly relies on its coast guard to monitor growing Chinese naval activities in the East China Sea and the Miyako Strait, an international waterway separating Okinawa and Miyako Island 175 miles to the southwest.

Japan’s coast guard intervenes frequently when Chinese coast guard vessels — sometimes armed — intrude into waters around the Senkaku Islands, a small group of uninhabited rocks and islets northeast of Taiwan and administered by Japan. The Chinese vessels reportedly follow and harass Japanese fishing vessels, forcing the Japanese coast guard to interpose its ships between the two.

Japan’s coast guard falls under the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. In times of conflict, Japan’s prime minister must seek Cabinet approval to transfer control of the coast guard to the Ministry of Defense, according to the statement.

The defense minister, according to the plan outlined by the ministry, would control all operations and information, which is expected to streamline processes and allow both agencies to operate more effectively.

The coast guard would remain focused on rescuing and evacuating citizens, along with supporting evacuations, search-and-rescue operations and surveillance of shoreline facilities, according to the Defense Ministry.

The ministry and coast guard were also directed to deepen joint training, strengthen communication systems, share facilities and equipment and conduct personnel exchanges.

The new procedures were a collaborative effort between the coast guard, Defense Ministry, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Security Council, the statement said.

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Keishi Koja is an Okinawa-based reporter/translator who joined Stars and Stripes in August 2022. He studied International Communication at the University of Okinawa and previously worked in education.
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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

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