The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Japan and Peace Operations: A Few Thoughts

November 22, 2007

The following essay by Prof. Jean-Marc Coicaud[1] was written at the request of Dr. Hasuo Ikuyo, editor of the newsletter UN Watching, amid increased tension between the ruling and opposition parties of Japan over its Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.

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Historically, Japan has participated in UN peacekeeping operations with its Self-Defense Forces only in a logistic fashion. This is largely the legacy of Article 9 of the Constitution, in the context of which Japan renounces the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

Needless to say, Article 9 was not designed to prevent Japan to get involved in UN peacekeeping operations that envision the use of force. When the Constitution was adopted, the idea of UN peacekeeping did not even exist. The first peacekeeping operation took place a few years after the Japanese Constitution was adopted. Moreover, it took several decades before the use of force really became a feature of peacekeeping operations. Indeed, not until the end of the Cold War, when humanitarian crises multiplied, was the international community willing to regularly call upon chapter 7 of the UN charter, to make this happen.

In this regard, the multiplication of peacekeeping operations associated with the possibility of the use of force in the post-Cold War era, only contributed to underline the ambiguity of the Japanese situation, especially compared to other powerful developed countries. During the Cold War, when peacekeeping operations were rare and the use of force in this context even rarer, the fact that Japan, following Article 9 of the Constitution, could not get involved, was a minor issue. Particularly considering that in the pre-1990s, with the global confrontation unfolding between the West and the communist bloc, national security was the main concern. This has changed since the early 1990s. While national interest and national security have remained key objectives of states’ foreign policy, including Japan’s, more attention is now given to solidarity beyond borders. The projection of a sense of international responsibility, in the service of countries and populations caught in the midst of conflict, is an imperative that cannot be easily overlooked (note 1). In this changed international environment, Japan’s restrictions on involvement in UN peacekeeping operations and the use of force were destined to become a matter of debate, internationally and, all the more, at home.

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In Japan, the arguments for and against the country’s involvement in peacekeeping operations beyond support activities, to a large extent revolve around different interpretations of Article 9.

For those opposing a more substantial Japanese participation in UN Peacekeeping, and other types of international operations such as that in Iraq and Afghanistan, Article 9 of the Constitution represents more than a foreign policy guideline. For them, Article 9 is at the very core of Japan’s post-World War national identity, of Japan’s modern identity committed to peace. Article 9 and the renunciation to the use of force that it entails are therefore not something to tamper with, let alone to alter for the sake of peacekeeping operations.

Those supporting a larger Japanese involvement in peacekeeping operations have a different view. For them, surely Article 9 applies to war in general and, more specifically, to wars of aggression. But it is not meant to completely limit Japanese foreign policy and its evolution, especially not when the use of force is envisioned for peace and humanitarian reasons in the multilateral setting. In this perspective, an amendment of the Constitution allowing a wider Japanese participation in UN peacekeeping operations is a possibility.

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At the international level, the debates on what should the extent of Japan’s participation be in UN peacekeeping are never as heated as they are domestically. After all, when it comes to international security issues, Japan tends to be perceived as a relatively minor player, particularly because of its strong military and political alliance with, as well as (psychological) dependency on the United States.

Moreover, there are some significant differences on the international scene on what the role of Japan should be in UN peace operations, namely between the regional level (Asia) and the larger one.

Beyond Asia, countries are relatively “agnostic” on whether or not Japan should get involved more and deeper in peacekeeping operations. UN member states recognize the positive and important contribution of Japan to the multilateral system. They value Japanese commitment to its ideals, institutions, and mechanisms. They also see Japan as a normal power –one which, as such, should share the whole spectrum of international responsibilities, from contributing financially to international organizations to, if need be, helping in the context of the use of force. On the other hand, at a time when more and more developed countries are increasingly reluctant to commit resources to UN peacekeeping operations (the current Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Mr. Jean-Marie Guéhenno, has repeatedly made this point in recent years (note 2)), developed countries are less and less in a position to ask for more from Japan in terms of peacekeeping.

As for the regional (Asia) environment, historical sensitivities make the perception of Japan and its use of force a touchy subject. Although it is not an explicitly stated position, China and North and South Korea are uneasy when it comes to Japan’s involvement in international operations envisioning the use of force. It is not that China and South Korea (North Korea has probably a different position) see Japan as a security risk. These two countries are in no doubt that Japan is now a peaceful nation, first and foremost interested in domestic prosperity and being a good global citizen. That being said, the Japanese ambiguous management of the past continues to fuel mistrust, if not resentment towards Japan in these countries.

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As we can see, there is hardly any strong external pressure, international or regional, for Japan to be more substantially involved in peace operations. As a matter of fact, if there is any pressure, it mainly comes from the United States, and from its current administration. Yet, the pressure from the Bush administration certainly does not ask first and foremost for greater Japanese engagement in the multilateral context of peace operations. Washington is primarily interested in stronger support from Tokyo on its own terms, and for its own agenda.

Against this background, when considering its more substantial involvement in international peace operations, Japan should ask itself: Under what modalities does more involvement serve the Japanese national interest, and is likely to have a positive impact on the ground? And, how does answering this question relate to currently debated operations, such as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation in Afghanistan?

The answers to these two questions can be seen as fourfold.

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The first answer entails Japan paying attention, yet not excessive attention to international recognition and international opinion. Since it opened up to the world in the 19th century, Japan has been very sensitive to the perceptions that other countries have of itself and its policies. At stake in this attitude is a quest for approval but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, acceptance. This has not changed since the end of the Cold War. Japan’s disappointment following the realization that, in the 1992 Iraq War, its large financial contribution to the international efforts was not really acknowledged, is an illustration of this state of affairs. Nevertheless, Japan should not allow itself to exist too much through the eyes of others. After all, it should be proud of its achievements, and of its various contributions to the international community. For nobody can deny that, despite the fact that it is not a permanent member of the Security Council, Japan occupies a prime of place at the multilateral level, and this should be a source of ease and confidence.

Second, as a matter of principle, Japan’s participation in the field of international security should take place respecting UN Security Council resolutions and mainly under the UN flag. Of course, this is not to say that Japan should not take into account the wishes of its closest ally, the United States. But it should make sure that it does so without weakening long-term Japanese national interest, those of its citizens, and without contradicting Japanese public opinion. The Japan-U.S. Alliance does not have to imply pure and simple alignment, particularly not with current American policies, as, in the United States and around the world, these are widely criticized and seen as failing. In other words, Japanese attitude in the field of security, including vis-à-vis terrorism, should be carried out because Japan feels that it represents a just cause for international peace, and not principally because it corresponds to and serves the immediate, and transient, views of its ally. This means that current Washington’s policies should not be an occasion for the Japanese government to further expand the interpretation of the Constitution.

Third, considering the deep divisions existing in Japan on Article 9, the reform of the Constitution is unlikely to happen anytime soon. One is consequently tempted to argue that there is no point in spending much time and energy on the matter. It is prone to be discussed ad infinitum. What is more important is that Japan genuinely tries to fulfill its rightful and responsible role in the international community within the constraints of its unique Constitution. This calls for the Japanese actions under the current constitutional philosophy to be understood and respected, nationally and internationally. In turn, this requires from the Japanese government to make greater efforts to explain its foreign policy, its possibilities and limitations –greater efforts to reach-out to Japanese citizens as well as to regional and international realms. Indeed, ultimately, the credibility of any kind of national policy, including foreign policy, rests on arguing convincingly about the framework in which it operates and the objectives that it pursues. Otherwise, it is likely to generate little support and, therefore, almost certain to achieve little.

Fourth, and at the center of heated debates in Japan in recent months, is the handling of Afghanistan and related issues. In this regard, while the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has been involved in operations beyond its original peacekeeping mandate, such as counterinsurgency sweeps against Taliban groups in the southern part of Kabul, Japan, due to its constitutional constraints, is destined to only provide non-military assistance. But, as the dispute on the Maritime Self-defense Force’s refueling mission in the war against terrorism shows, even this is being questioned. So, how to address the matter? Although this does not amount to a full-fledged answer, three points can be made.

    • Japanese Defense Ministry, by calling home in early November 2007 its naval ships from the Indian Ocean, ended a mission deployed in support of the war in Afghanistan that had raised the nation’s military presence overseas, but that was increasingly criticized domestically. This demonstrates that Japan continues to be reluctant to involvement in peace operations beyond its traditionally careful approach. Yet, maritime operations of the multinational forces are important, namely in that they can see as helping to protect sea routes vital to trade-dependent Japan, especially for its crude oil from the Middle East. Maritime operations can therefore be quite a significant area for Japan to provide assistance, as it has great implications for Japanese economy and the welfare of its citizens. Furthermore, it can provide the opportunity for Japan to be part of an international effort (especially in the context of the G8) to fight terrorism through deployment of personnel, and not simply through channeling financial resources. However, before any decision is reached for refueling operations to resume, a comprehensive assessment and evaluation of the previous operation should be undertaken, along with a formal debate domestically.
    • This approach does not have to exclude supporting the improvement of people’s livelihood in Afghanistan in cease-fire agreed zones, including basic education, disarmament, medical, public health and sanitation services, food production and the building of infrastructure. Also, the quality of these activities can be further diversified and improved. Although the effectiveness and impact of such operations in Afghanistan is questionable under the unstable conditions of the country, these are areas in which Japan can serve its missions as part of the international efforts. Moreover, for Japan to contribute to the extent possible to try to keep the momentum in Afghanistan is a wise diplomatic choice. And it is one that is in line with its recent initiatives to strengthen its capacity and its role to undertake humanitarian, peace and governance assistance, such as the Hiroshima Peace Builders Center (note 3).
    • Finally, it is understandable and healthy that political parties differ. But today one has the impression that the issues discussed above are the captive, if not the hostage, of party rivalry, of a political battle between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). One has the impression that these issues and the dilemmas that they entail are not addressed in ways designed to find inspiring and workable solutions, but more than anything else with in mind the pursuit of political gains. One therefore has to hope that the situation between the two parties will stabilize and that their relationship will mature to a stage where they will learn to cooperate for the welfare of Japanese citizens and the international community.           

New York, November 12, 2007


note 1: See Jean-Marc Coicaud’s new book in Japanese, Limits of the UN/Future of the UN (Fujiwara Shoten, Tokyo, 2007).

note 2: Refer for example to Remarks of Mr. Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations to the Fourth Committee of the General Assembly, October 19, 2006),

note 3:


[1] Prof. Jean-Marc Coicaud heads the United Nations University (UNU) Office at the United Nations in New York. He was Senior Academic Officer at UNU, Tokyo, from 1996 to 2003. Before joining UNU, he served in the Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General as a speechwriter for Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali from 1992 to 1996. Coicaud holds a Ph.D. in political science-law from the Sorbonne and a Doctorat d’Etat from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques of Paris. In 2007, Prof. Jean-Marc Coicaud has published Limits of the UN/Future of the UN (in Japanese, Fujiwara Shoten, Tokyo). He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Academic Council for the United Nations Systems (ACUNS) and a member of the Advisory Board of Global Policy Innovations (New York). He also serves as an adviser for the Fondation pour l’innovation politique (Paris).

    • Head, United Nations University (UNU) Office, United Nations in New York
    • Jean-Marc Coicaud
    • Jean-Marc Coicaud

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