The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

The New Security Legislation and Japanese Public Reaction

December 2, 2015

The Abe cabinet succeeded in passing legislation to expand the scope of Japan’s security options in September, but the strength of public opposition was surpris ing . Satoru Mori urges the government to address the “unilateral pacifist” mindset of the Japanese people and to make a greater effort to convince them of the need to actively defend the embattled international order to ensure continued peace and prosperity.

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On September 18, the Diet approved a package of controversial security laws that will come into force in March 2016. The new legislation will help deter aggressive behavior in the region by facilitating more effective cooperation between Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the military forces of other countries, particularly Japan’s sole alliance partner, the United States , and also open the way for Japan to provide support for UN-sanctioned operations in response to threats to international peace. In these and other ways, it provides the essential legal framework Japan needs in order to defend the international order—and thereby our own peace and prosperity—in the midst of a changing and challenging international environment. The most significant implication of the new legal framework is that it would allow the Japanese government to (1) plan extensively for various types of contingencies and (2) train and equip the SDF accordingly. Planning and training form a significant part of deterrence, and thus the new security legislation opens the way for Japan to proactively contribute to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

However, t he dominant impression among Japanese voters seems to be that the legislation is confusing. There is no denying that the language of some of the provisions makes them difficult to parse at a glance. The large number of bills submitted to the Diet all at once—10 bills amending provisions of existing laws along with a permanent International Peace Support Bill—added to this impression of complexity, as did the opposition parties’ deliberate focus on a few highly technical provisions during Diet deliberations.

Nevertheless, if we examine the legislation systematically in terms of the kinds of actions permitted in different situations, we find that the content of the laws is neither mystifying nor threatening. One framework that could be used to systematically comprehend the nature and scope of SDF actions would look like this:

Use of Force

(1) Under armed attack
Threat to survival

Support Activities

(3) Important influence on peace and security
(4) Collective international response

Peacetime Activities

(5) Asset protection
International peace cooperation

The four situations—(1) through (4)—are legally defined so as to delineate what the SDF can and cannot do. The following is a brief summary description of the different activities in which the SDF can engage.

Demystifying the New Legislation

Situations in Which the Use of Force Is Permitted

First, the use of force by the SDF under a defense operations order is restricted to two types of contingencies. The first, a situation in which Japan is “under armed attack ,” is consistent with previous policy , meaning that Japan is able to exercise individual self-defense and that the Japan-US Security Treaty would be invoked . The second is a situation that poses a “threat to survival” in which an armed attack has been launched against another country that is in a close relationship with Japan and p oses a clear danger of fundamentally overturning the [ Japanese ] people’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Under these conditions and these conditions alone will Japan now be able to exercise its right to engage in limited collective self-defense—that is, the use of force in defense of a close friend or ally.

The strategic rationale for permitting participation in collective self-defense in situations that pose a threat to Japan’s existence is to enhance the deterrent capability of the Japan-US alliance by allowing the SDF to coordinate effectively with the US military in the event of a major security crisis on the Korean Peninsula or elsewhere in the region.

While allowing limited participation in collective self-defense, the new laws preserve an exclusively defensive posture by stipulating that an actual armed attack (either on Japan or on a close friend or ally) must occur before Japan is permitted to respond with the use of military force. Moreover, prior Diet approval is required in principle before Japan can participate in limited collective self-defense. Although SDF forces could be mobilized without prior Diet approval in emergency situations, subsequent Diet approval would still be necessary. In this way the law maintains the principle of democratic control over the military.

Situations in Which Support Activities Are Allowed

The laws also provide for the dispatch of SDF units overseas in situations where there are emerging threats to peace that may have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security and in taking a “collective international response ”—based on a UN resolution—to threat s to international peace. However, in these situations, the role of the SDF will be limited to various support activities , search and rescue operations, ship inspection operations, and other noncombat activities in which the use of weapons will be permitted in principle only for purposes of self-preservation.

Iraqi children shake hands with SDF soldiers during a reconstruction operation in postwar Iraq. © Rikujojieitai Boueisho (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Iraqi children shake hands with SDF soldiers during a reconstruction operation in postwar Iraq. © Rikujojieitai Boueisho (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In terms of the deployment of the SDF for support purposes in these two situation s, the legislation envisions the SDF cooperati ng in the areas of supplies, transportation, repair and maintenance, medical treatment, communications, airport and seaport activities, base support, billeting, storage, and training services ( construction services are also envisioned for collective international response ) . The deploy ment of SDF units overseas under these situations means that Japan will be able to cooperate with other countries to defend the international order and restore peace in the event that the peace of the international community is under threat or attack by a specific power.

Although the SDF will be permitted to provide the kinds of logistic and cooperative support outlined above under “important influence” and “collective international response” situations, it will not be able to engage in such activities inside of combat zones. If fighting breaks out or is thought likely to break out in the vicinity of such SDF operations, the unit commander is to temporarily suspend activities. Depending on the circumstances, the minister of defense may order the operation terminated.

The new legislation permits the use of weapons by SDF troops involved in overseas support activitie s, but only when necessary to protect themselves, other SDF personnel, or other people under their supervision, and they may not go beyond what is reasonably required to respond to the situation. In other words, they may use their weapons to expel hostile forces from the area or to protect themselves and others in the area. This will allow the SDF to evacuate while defending themselves and others in the vicinity in the event that the site of activity turns into a combat zone . Thus, while the new legislation expands the range of actions permitted to the SDF, it also establishes rules and mechanisms needed to manage the risks to which SDF troops and others may be exposed as a result.

These provisions address the risks inherent in such activities by enhancing the immediate response and deterrence capability of forces on the ground. Diet authorization is required without exception, moreover, prior to the deployment of SDF forces in “collective international response” situations.

Peacetime Activities

Under the new legislation the SDF may use weapons—again, only to the extent necessary— to protect the weapons and other equipment of foreign nations in the event of a compelling request by a military or comparable unit of the United States or other country that has established a cooperative security relationship with Japan and the SDF. This type of asset protection mission will likely prove valuable upon conducting multinational military exercises and combined ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) operations in the future. It should also be noted that asset protection missions are also possible during the situations mentioned above.

In addition, the legislation also allows the SDF to use weapons for the execution of missions in the context of UN peacekeeping operations. The SDF will be able to protect local populations who reside in areas where UN peacekeeping operations are carried out, and it will be capable of protecting individuals who are associated with the ongoing operations and other advisory activities. The SDF will also be able to rescue Japanese nationals overseas , premised on the consent of the state in which the rescue operation is to take place and the meeting of certain other conditions.

As the foregoing indicates, a close look at the substance of the new law refutes critics’ charges that it is “war legislation” and that it exposes SDF personnel to unacceptable risks. The process of seeking authorization from the Diet ensures that people’s representatives have final political say over the extent and shape of any SDF involvement in overseas conflicts. The new security legislation is designed to give Japan the latitude to formulate more effective responses to threats to international peace and security that may occur, in concert with the United States and other partners that share our interest in maintaining peace and the international order, while managing the risks involved.

Ostensible Causes of Public Resistance

Unfortunately, the legislation’s advocates were not entirely successful in educating the public as to its purpose and importance. In opinion polls by Japan’s major national newspapers, both before and after the bills’ passage, between 50% and 60% of respondents registered their disapproval , and between 70% and 80% felt that the government’s explanations were insufficient. Government officials , though, responded at length to numerous questions from both the ruling and opposition parties in the course of more than 200 hours of deliberations in the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. These deliberations were reported in detail by the media. Why, then, was the public left feeling confused and insufficiently inform ed about the bill?

One factor was the opposition parties’ rather parochi al parliamentary tactics , to which the government fell victim. The y zeroed in relentlessly on abstruse technicalities without proposing viable alternatives and avoided any discussion of the larger s trategic issues at stake.

Another factor was the nature of the media coverage. When a government official stumbled in the course of such questioning, the media would seize gleefully on the gaffe, playing the video over and over until the public lost faith in the ruling party and the government and became convinced that the legislation was too arcane and confusing for even the minister of defense to explain.

A third factor—t iming may have compounded the bills’ image problems. The bulk of the deliberations took place in August, when television stations were marking the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II with programs and movies recalling the war and its devastation. Amid this general atmosphere of remorse over the past and determination never again to wage war, the opposition was able to play on the public’s fears and suspicions by labeling the bills “war legislation.”

The Postwar Japanese Psyche

Still, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that something deeper and more fundamental prevented the bills from winning the understanding and active support from even a bare majority of the people. It may be that the bills’ advocates failed to recognize and clearly address the basic premises underlying the pacifism that the Japanese people have embraced since World War II. For this reason, they failed to dispel fears and suspicions rooted in this uniquely Japanese view of peace—doubts that stood in the way of an objective understanding and acceptance of the new legislation and its purpose.

The first of these doubts and fears is the straightforward concern that broadening the legal scope of the SDF’s activities heightens the danger of Japan’s waging another war, with all its attendant horrors. Put simply, this is a basic suspicion of military power and its use derived from history . Japan once plunged into a war of aggression, as a result of which countless people suffered and died. The determination never to wage war again is a widespread sentiment among the Japanese people, who renew that commitment each August, when bitter memories of the war are summoned once again. This memory has led the Japanese to psychologically equate the flexible use of military power with war. This makes it more difficult for the Japanese public to appreciate the strategic logic that military effectiveness could help deter war .

The second concern is the fear of becoming embroiled or entangled in others’ conflicts. Japan is a formal ally of the United States, whose military presence extends throughout the world. A segment of the Japanese public fear s that, if cooperative ties between the SDF and the US military are strengthened, Japan would come under pressure to make a military contribution to any conflict in which the United States became involved elsewhere—including instances of military intervention—even if Japan’s own security and interests were not at stake. They see Article 9 of the Constitution as a bulwark that has allowed them to resist such pressure from the United States; once the government loosen s the constraints of Article 9, they fear, Japan will have no means of resisting US demands to intervene in conflicts around the world.

The third fear is that, by loosening the constraints of Article 9 and permitting even limited collective self-defense, Japan will exacerbate tensions in the region and heighten the risk of war—whereas (they believe) peace would certainly prevail if Japan simply maintained the status quo. Underlying this fear, it would seem, is a tacit assumption that Japan’s actions alone determine whether peace prevails in the region. In other words, there are those who believe that the Constitution and the existing interpretation of Article 9 are the sole determinants of peace in the region, not paying any heed to the role played by the SDF and the alliance.

When the Japanese government embraced a constitutional interpretation prohibiting the use of force except in the event of a direct attack on Japan by a foreign state, it did so predicated on the understanding that its ally the United States would use its unparalleled military might to defend Japan from aggression. On the one hand, this interpretation of Article 9 helped foster among the Japanese a fairly widespread acceptance of the necessity of the Japan-US alliance, as attested by the results of numerous public opinion polls. But a certain segment of the Japanese public appears to have lost sight of the key role US forward deployment and extended deterrence ha ve played in preserving peace by deterring the use of military force against Japan . Ironically, the people came to believe that Japan itself had single-handedly preserved peace through its adherence to an interpretation of Article 9 that strictly prohibited Japan’s participation in collective self-defense. The natural corollary of this passive, unilateral pacifism—which amounts to a kind of postwar Japanese exceptionalism—is a deep suspicion of military power per se.

In recent months, some scholars have attempted to legitimize such concerns by claiming that the new security legislation illustrates a “security dilemma”—the notion that actions taken by a state to improve its own security can have the paradoxical effect of heightening tensions by causing other states to step up defense measures in response. They argue that by changing the government’s interpretation of the Constitution and taking legislative steps to strengthen the Japan-US alliance, Japan itself is altering the status quo in a way that threatens to disrupt peace in the region. Of course, this completely ignores the realities of our security situation toda y failing, for example, to address the issue of China’s burgeoning military capability , threatening behavior , and its expressed intention to alter the status quo to achieve its claims in the East and the South China Seas.

Confronting Unilateral Pacifism

At the heart of the Japanese public’s fears and suspicions of legislation to expand the scope of the SDF’s activities lies this unique Japanese view of peace, rooted in bitter memories of the war and the “passive, unilateral pacifism” that took root in an environment of heavy relia nce on US military force under a strict interpretation of Article 9. The answer is not to belittle such fears or disparage them as the products of narrow-minded ideological dogma but to accept those deep-rooted concerns as a fundamental reality of Japanese society and address them directly through persistent dialogue , even after the bills have passed .

There is no question that Japan must stand by the commitment to peace articulated in Article 9. But as the security environment surrounding Japan has changed, so have the means required to preserve the peace. Theoretically, a number of different options are available to us in pursuit of that goal, but not all of them offer a realistic chance of achieving it. Unless Japan adapts to the realities of today’s changing security environment, it will find the peace it claims to value increasingly elusive.

The fundamental task facing our government leaders and security policy expert s is to talk to the Japanese people patiently and persistently and convince them that, given the realities confronting Japan today, continued adherence to unilateral pacifism actually puts the cause of peace at risk—that, to the contrary, the key to peace lies in the ability and willingness of the Japanese nation to adapt to a changing international environment.

The majority of the Japanese public appears to understand the need for and the rationale of the new security legislation; their reluctance to support the legislation wholeheartedly appears to be rooted in the anxieties and fears associated with expanding the scope of SDF activities. Therefore, i t is not sufficie nt simply to defend the necessity of each new security bill and policy as it arises. The government must rise to the larger challenge of addressing the fears and doubts stemming from their core , fundamental belief in unilateral pacifism.

Domestic Reassurance

Reassuring the people is a vitally important task for any democratic government. In this case, the Japanese government’s success or failure in this endeavor will determine whether Japan can adapt its security policies to a changing international environment. To reassure the people regarding the recently passed legislation, the government needs to do the following.

First, every prime minister should deliver a comprehensive defense policy speech to address the first concern mentioned above— that a broader role for the SDF might lead Japan into waging war. The prime minister should delineate his views on the purposes that the SD F should fulfill and the need for deterrence in concrete terms , and he should state clearly that Japan will never use its military for purposes of aggression as in the past. To be sure, the new security legislation the prime minister sought has been voted into law, but the government’s efforts to reassure the Japanese people on a constant, ongoing basis will determine its ability to secure the public’s support for the deployment of the SDF in the event of a crisis situation.

Second, in order to address the second type of fear mentioned above— that Japan will be draw n into an American armed intervention overseas —our top officials need to speak in concrete terms regarding the implications of various international issues for Japan’s own security so as to instill an awareness of Japan’s own independent stake in maintaining the existing international order. We need to abandon the mindset of “standing behind the United States because we owe it our allegiance as an ally . The Japanese public needs to develop a habit of assessing the country’s policy toward international developments in the light of their potential impact on Japan ese security . Having raised the people’s awareness of such issues in advance, the government will be in a better position to persuade the public, in the event of a joint action with the United States and others , that Japan is making an independent decision grounded in its own interests. Such a narrative must be built on an ongoing basis to allow the Japanese people to make a more realistic appraisal of the state of international affairs .

Third, to address concerns that the new security legislation will have the paradoxical effect of exacerbating international tensions, the government needs to set forth a comprehensive security strategy to deal with today’s changing international environment and delineate the role the SDF and the Japan-US alliance play within that overarching strategy. Now that the new security legislation has been enacted, it is time to outline an integrated strategy for pro moting peace and prosperity, spanning the entire spectrum of external policy—from diplomacy and defense to economics, trade, and development assistance—and explain the role expanded SDF operations have to play within that strategy. This will help relieve anxieties over the expansion of SDF activities by making it clear that military capability is just one aspect of a much larger effort by Japan to adapt to a changing security environment.

While a main pillar of Japan’s China strategy might be deterrence through enhancement of the Japan-US alliance and the SDF , the government sh ould , for example, also detail efforts at engagement in the economic and social spheres, as well as diplomatic initiatives aimed at encouraging China to take the path of dialogue and negotiation, as opposed to unilateral action challenging the status quo.

A Proactive Internationalist Vision

Thus far, domestic debate over Japanese security policy—erupting each time Japan finds itself under international political pressure to contribute more to global security—has centered on the same old legalistic and emotionalistic arguments. The recently passed legislation triggered similar debate s , with the bills’ opponents citing everything from constitutional and procedural issues to international security theory.

The surge of public interest in national security issues is to be welcomed, especially in a country where domestic economic, social, and welfare issues tend to overshadow other voter concerns. Unfortunately, none of the arguments coming from the opposition parties addressed the upheavals roiling the international system and the challenge Japan faces in maintaining its own peace and security in the midst of these changes.

The distinguished political scientist Masataka Kosaka once stated that Japanese foreign policy should aim not simply to preserve Japan’s security but to preserve it in a manner consistent with Japanese values.” He argued that the Japanese needed to be more conscious of the importance of “working to build the kind of international order that reflects our own national values.” Japan’s foremost national value is peace and prosperity for all, and the country has worked diligently toward this goal over the past 70 years.

The source of Japan’s peace and prosperity has already expanded its reach around the globe. The public must come to the realization that Japan will never be a “ p eace s tate” in any meaningful sense of the term as long as we persist in viewing international security as a matter of standing behind the United States and shirking the risks and responsibilities of actively protecting the international order on which peace rests. If Japan wishes to uphold the ideal of peace enshrined in Article 9 as a Japanese value, it must work to build and maintain an international order that supports that ideal by assessing and responding to international affairs soberly and strategically, with Japan’s own security interests in mind.

To cope with the challenges of today’s turbulent international environment, Japan needs to make the transition from the passive mindset of unilateral pacifism to a more proactive internationalist vision of the world order. This shift in consciousness will not occur overnight, but now is the time to lay the foundation. In this context, it would be a mistake to consider the controversy over the new legislation at an end, now that the bills have passed. Rather, we should view it as the beginning of a national dialogue on the best way for Japan to pursue the ideal of peace while responding to a rapidly changing international environment. While cherishing our deep feelings of remorse for the past, we must raise our eyes to the horizon and prepare to confront the complex problems looming there with realism and persistent vigilance.

    • Professor, Faculty of Law, Hosei University
    • Satoru Mori
    • Satoru Mori

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