The ICAS Lectures

No. 99-0507-AkN

 Japan's Security Interests and Posture: 
Constitution and Reality

  Aki Nagashima

ICAS Spring Symposium
Asia's Challenges Ahead
University of Pennsylvania
May 7, 1999

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Biographic Sketch: Aki Nagashima





Aki Nagashima
Research Associate for Asian Security Studies
Council on Foreign Relations

Introduction: Two Alliances in the Atlantic and Pacific

       It was more than coincident that the two major alliances the United States has maintained, namely, trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific alliances, have just taken their first and significant steps beyond the parameters that the two alliances have carefully built and maintained for half a century. It is indeed significant that while NATO adopted its "new strategic concept" to play a significant role in crises in the areas surrounding its borders during NATO's 50 anniversary gathering in Washington last month, the Japanese Diet, at the same time, passed a set of bills designed to implement the new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines that calls for Japanese active support of the U.S. forces in the event of a contingency in the areas surrounding Japan.

       For the first time in history, Japan has accepted that external stability is important to its own security, and, like the NATO allies, will take active responsibility for regional security beyond its borders. What the 1997 revision of the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines provides is the outline and framework for the legitimacy of bilateral defense cooperation not only for the defense of Japan but also in the "areas surrounding Japan." Although the new arrangement was widely debated and highly controversial in Japan and has been causing concerns in neighboring countries, it does not mean that Japan would allow its troops to fight alongside U.S. forces, nor would the Air Self Defense Force participate in a bombing campaign like Germany is doing with the NATO allies in Yugoslavia. It does mean that Japan would help in the evacuations of civilians, allow U.S. forces to use Japanese airstrips and hospitals, conduct search-and-rescue missions in areas away from combat zones and provide fuel, spare parts and other logistical aid.

       Indeed, government officials in Washington and Tokyo alike kept emphasizing that Japan would preserve the peace clause of its present Constitution and self-restrained security policies, namely, forgoing the exercise of the right to collective self-defense, maintaining neither nuclear weapons nor power projection capability and preserving the traditional asymmetric distribution of responsibilities in the U.S.-Japan alliance. That is, the United States provides the strategic guarantees of the nuclear umbrella, power projection forces, and a context for the alliance of regional and global engagement, while Japan provides for its own defense and other "exclusively defensive" military assets, bases and facilities in Japan used by American forces coupled with financial host nation support. Japan and the United States would not become so fully operationally integrated as have the NATO allies.

Constitution and Reality

       However, there is some confusion with regard to the letter and spirit of the Japanese Constitution, particularly, Article 9. Some argue that even basic logistical support violates Japan's "peace constitution," in which Japan forever renounces military force as a means to solve international disputes.

Article 9 reads as follows:

       Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

       In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Although the language of the clause, especially the second section of the article, seems very strong and peculiar, the spirit of the provision, specifically the first section, is almost identical to Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. That is because the people who wrote the draft of the Japanese constitution were largely the same "progressive liberals" in the U.S. government at the time who drew up the UN Charter. Article 2 of the UN Charter reads as follows:

       3. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.        4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

But as you know, there is an exception within the same UN Charter in regard to use of force. That stems from the inherent sovereign right of self-defense. Article 51 of the UN Charter reads as follows:

       Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

       Japan itself, despite the appearance of the constitution, recognized in a 1959 Supreme Court Case that "the provision of [Article 9] does not deny the inherent right of self-defense that Japan is entitled to maintain as a sovereign nation." (Defense White Paper 1998) Then, the Government of Japan went on to build up carefully the following national consensus by the 1960s, reflecting its determination that "the horror of war would not be allowed to repeat itself and has since made tenacious efforts to establish itself as a peace-loving nation."

Defense White Paper, 1998, reads as follows:
"Since the self-defense right is not denied, the government remains firm in the belief that the constitution does not prohibit Japan from possessing the "minimum necessary level" of armed strength to exercise that right. The government therefore has adopted pursuant to provisions of the constitution an exclusively defense-oriented policy as its basic policy of national defense." (p. 67)

       As a result, the government has developed various self-restricting conditions on exercising the right of self-defense around the notion of "minimum necessary level." For example,

  • Exclusively defensive military capability (no ICBM, long-range strategic bombers, or offensive aircraft carriers)
  • Geographically limited scope of exercise of the right of self-defense
  • Three non-nuclear principles
  • Three principles on arms exports
  • Ban on exercise of the right of collective self-defense

       It is true that Japan's self-constrained defense policy, a product of its "minimalist" interpretation of the constitution, has had a stabilizing influence in Asia, in effect reassuring neighboring countries that Japan never again would repeat its prewar military adventurism. However, with the sudden demise of the Soviet threat alongside Japan's emergence as a global economic power, Japan's rigid adherence to the traditional interpretation of the Constitution has come to be viewed by the international community as an undue restriction of Japan's ability to assume the political burdens expected of a world leader. The foreign criticism heaped on Japan for its perceived "too-little, too-late" response to the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War was a decisive wake-up call for policymakers in Tokyo. Shortly after the war's end, Tokyo sent minesweepers to assist with the cleanup of the Persian Gulf in 1991, and the Diet passed legislation authorizing unarmed roles for the Self-Defense Forces in U.N. peacekeeping operations in 1992.

       Since then, as event after event has revealed Japan's inability to cope with the increasingly fluid security environment at home and abroad, the Government of Japan has gradually relaxed the once-rigid interpretation of the constitution and incrementally expand its security roles and strengthened its national crisis-management apparatus. JSDF's overseas operations have become quite common since it was dispatched to participate in U.N. peace-keeping operations in Cambodia (1992), in Mozambique (1993-95), in Rwanda (1994), in Golan Heights (1996), and in Honduras (1999) as well as non-combatant evacuation operations during the Cambodian political turmoil (1997) and Indonesian crisis (1998). Furthermore, the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and the Aumshinri-kyo sarin gas attack on Tokyo subway systems in 1995, the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, and the 1996-97 hostage crisis in Peru all combined to move Japan toward a more realistic and practical security policy in the uncertain strategic environment of the post-Cold War.

       And eventually, the review process of the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines (1996-97), followed by the intensive Diet deliberation of the legislation to implement the Guidelines (1998-99) have virtually marginalized the long-standing debate over the right of collective self-defense, which in the past hindered any kind of defense cooperation with our American ally unless Japan were under direct attack. Most activities spelled out in the Guidelines (which, during the Gulf War, were considered to beunconstitutional because they exceeded the limit of minimum necessary level of self-defense) became constitutional as the so-called "gray areas" were cleared in the process. Mine-sweeping during conflict, maritime interdiction operations under the auspices of the U.N., and logistical support in the event of a contingency, all included in the gray area, are now allowed.

       In fact, Article 9 says nothing about "collective self-defense," but Article 98 says that "treaties concluded by Japan and established by the law of nations shall be faithfully observed." That means Article 9 must be read in the context of the UN Charter and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, both of which outlaw war but recognize a right of self-defense without distinguishing between individual and collective action. Nevertheless, successive governments, steered primarily by the Cabinet Legal Bureau and forced by domestic politics to deal with pacifist-dominated opposition parties, have interpreted Article 9 as limiting Japan "to the minimum necessary" military capability needed to defend against direct attack. As a result, the Japanese government takes the strange position that "Japan has the right of collective defense under international law, but cannot exercise it under the constitution." Ambassador Hisahiko Okazaki challenged that, arguing that the "official explanations were the result of political decisions, if not concessions, by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and did not define the legal limits of the constitution." In other words, all you need is just relax the interpretation, lest you stir unnecessary controversy resulting from the actual revision of the Constitution that is bound to create enormous political costs at home and abroad.

       Whether or not Japan should exercise the right to collective self-defense as well as individual self-defense will be the next hot issue among policymakers in Tokyo. My proposed interpretation of Article 9, by the way, is as follows:

"Japan can exercise both rights of individual and collective self-defense as an inherent sovereign right under the established international law. However, the GOJ shall not dispatch armed forces to foreign territorial land, sea, and airspace for the purpose of using or threatening to use force, unless either a UN resolution or invocation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty exists."

       There is no ambiguity whatsoever. The Japanese government should do what every other nation does, and recognize that the right of self-defense makes no distinction between "individual" and "collective." However, Japan should exercise geographical self-restraint, meaning that Japan pledges never to send ground forces abroad without the request or consent of the host nation. That is crucial, given the burden of history, and the skepticism of Japan's neighbors about any growth in its military role.

       As a result, any combined military exercise with allies and friends is allowed as far as the high seas. Japan's defense cooperation with the United States that is considered necessary in the foreseeable future can now be done without any hesitation. Furthermore, in regards to UN activities, there will be no obstacles for JSDF to participate in roles from "monitoring unit to observe cessation of armed conflict" to "peace enforcement troops." Actually, if the proposed interpretation described above were adopted, it could draw a wide range of support from the most hawkish, such as the former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro to the most dovish, such as Miyazawa Kiichi, for the principle that defensive operations by Japanese forces alongside U.S. forces outside Japan are constitutional so long as the Japanese do not get into combat in third countries. (Asahi Shimbun, April 25, 1997)

       Furthermore, the late March intrusion of suspected North Korean spy boats into Japanese waters, which occurred just seven months after Pyongyang's launch of a ballistic missile over northern Honshu, further accelerated the ruling coalition government's case for prompt action on the Defense Guidelines bills, in addition to a related debate on whether the Self-Defense Forces Law gives the SDF sufficient authority to defend Japan effectively from foreign incursions. These events have apparently awakened even those who wake up last, namely The Asahi Shimbun, known as the most pacifist newspaper. Its staff writer, Taoka Shunji, wrote in an article after the incident that "Even if Japan sunk those suspect ships, Japan would by no means be accused under the international law... That the state-of-the-art Aegis destroyers let them get away may have shown to other countries that Japan is a coward." (Asahi Shimbun, March 24, 1999)

       Regardless of how neighboring countries scream against Japan's expansion of its security role, Japan's feeling of insecurity and the aspiration of the younger generation cannot be contained. As The Financial Times correctly points out "For a growing number of younger generation Japanese, the idea that Japan can take its own security into its own hands is no longer unthinkable." (April 30, 1999) Again, you should not suppress those kinds of feeling or aspiration among Japanese public, but you should manage them, so that they will not flare up as was the case in the 1920s-30s.

Where Would Japan Go from Here?--Key Factors to Watch

       The answer must depend at least on three "uncertainties" in the Asia-Pacific region: U.S. commitment in the region; China's future course of action; and Japan's own economic prospects.

(1) U.S. commitment in the region?1

       The latest East Asia Security Review issued by the U.S. Department of Defense, the first review since 1995, confirmed the current 100,000 troops level of U.S. commitment to the regional peace and stability. But continuing downward pressure on the U.S. defense budget would make it harder to maintain the same level of commitment in the region. Robust U.S. military presence as a crucial stabilizing factor in the region is essential to Japan's security policy formulations. But more important would be the reliability of "American will" to stay engaged in the regional security.

       But the North Korean launch of a three staged Taepo-dong ballistic missile last August exposed some strains in the U.S.-Japan alliance and raised some doubt about American will in terms of its commitment to the regional security. The event, understandably, prompted Tokyo to suspend all food aid for North Korea, withdraw from diplomatic normalization talks with Pyongyang, and postpone the signing of the cost-sharing agreement for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). Five days later, however, Washington concluded in its direct bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang that the light water reactor (LWR) construction schedule for the KEDO should be "accelerated." The reaction in Tokyo to Washington's attitude was indeed anger and embarrassment. Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura publicly complained about the U.S. attitude that pretended as if "nothing has happened" despite the fact that the missile flew over the main island of its ally, demonstrating North Korea's capability to inflict direct damage on Japan.

       Further strains in the alliance were found with regard to the different analyses on the Taepo-dong launch between Washington and Tokyo. The United States in mid-September accepted the North Korean explanation that Taepo-dong was intended to launch a satellite into orbit. On the other hand, the Japanese Defense Agency concluded at the end of October that Taepo-dong was more likely a missile test than a failed satellite launching. Although Tokyo did not rule out the possibility of a satellite launching and Washington stressed that the weapons capability demonstrated in the launching was highly threatening, whether or not it was a satellite, still the different interpretations underscore a measure of mistrust between the two allies.

       The consequence was the wild enthusiasm demonstrated by Japanese politicians and media for an independent intelligence capability in the wake of the Taepodong launching. Indeed, the question of the reliability of the U.S. side had much to do with the Cabinet's approval to orbit a four-satellite reconnaissance network by fiscal 2002, beginning with an initial injection of more than ¥10 billion for research and development, toward a system estimated to ultimately cost ¥200 billion, plus about ¥10 billion a year to maintain and operate. Support for a domestic surveillance satellite network came even after Defense Agency officials told reporters that the proposed system would not contribute much to improved defense intelligence, since the agency was already contracting with a U.S. satellite operator for high-image surveillance beginning in 2001. Some U.S. officials expressed concern that a Japanese system would be redundant with U.S. capabilities and might draw scarce resources away from the bilateral Theater Missile Defense program and needed modernization of other systems.

(2) Expansion of Chinese sphere of influence

       Trade between Japan and China grew from $18.2 billion in 1990 to $62.4 billion in 1996. Over the roughly the same period, Japan's foreign direct investment into China expanded from $438 million in 1989 to $4.5 billion in 1995. It was Japan that resumed the official economic aid to China when other countries were still engaged in economic sanction after the Tiennamen massacre of 1989. However, as Michael Green points out, it took less than a decade before the Japanese became fully aware that "closer bilateral economic ties did not translate into Japanese influence over an increasingly powerful and confident China."2 Socialist Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi was stunned when he was told on the way back from the 1995 summit meeting with President Jian Zemin in Beijing that the Chinese had conducted nuclear weapons tests. In 1996, the Taiwan Straits crisis, coupled with a dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyutai) Islands, sent Sino-Japanese relations to a post-war low. Between 1985 and 1997, the percentage of Japanese who said they did not feel friendly relations toward China rose from 18% to 51% with sharp and sustained increases beginning in 1991, according to polls taken by the Prime Minister's Office in Japan. (Asahi Shimbun, February 27, 1997)

       In 1995, the Japan Defense Agency's annual White Paper highlighted for the first time the "uncertainty" caused by Chinese military modernization. As Chinese and Japanese leaders confronted each other over China's nuclear tests and the Senkaku dispute as well as longstanding problems regarding wartime memory between the Japanese and Chinese, the debate would be colored by a growing recognition that conflicting interests were emerging in the fundamental security objectives of each country. These conflicting interests became most pronounced in the Taiwan Straits incident of March 1996, and reminded by the recent Jian Zemin visit to Tokyo in November 1998. For Japan, growing China is nothing but the most problematic object of its foreign policy against which it must take a hedging strategy to protect its own interests.

(3) Rising nationalism overshadowed by Japan's own economic prospect3

       The forces of global economic convergence and a growing insecurity about long-term relations with neighboring states, especially China are changing the Japanese world view. Activism in foreign policy is now motivated less by the "noblesse oblige" of a rich nation, and more by concerns about Japanese vulnerability in an increasingly fluid international environment. The collapse of the Japanese economic model is gradually dragging the "1955 system" of LDP politics down with it, as demonstrated by the results of the July 1998 Upper House election and recent Tokyo gubernatorial election. As a result the foreign policy making process is becoming less predictable.

       Particularly, the frustration with Sino-American summit in 1998 where the two leaders lectured about what Japan should do, and a sense of insecurity have been palatable in Japan. The extreme form of the Japanese nationalist reaction against external pressure is represented by Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro's Sensen Fukoku: "No" to Ieru Nihon Keizai [Declaration of War: A Japanese Economy That Can Say No], which topped the best-seller list for several weeks. Other books like Kikkawa Mototada's Money Haisen[Loss of the Money War] also lament Japan's entrapment in U.S. global economic strategy, if not conspiracy, mixed with anxiety over the U.S. announcement of a "strategic partnership" with Beijing.

       Another indication of Japan's possible departure from tightened U.S.-Japan security alliance was reflected in former Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro's article for the July-August 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs, "Are U.S. Troops in Japan Needed?" He recommended their departure by the end of the century. His position reflects an earlier proposal considered by Hatoyama Kunio, co-founder of the Democratic Party of Japan, largest opposition party, to the effect that security alliance could be maintained without a U.S. presence in Japan. Such proposals are not as dangerous as they might seem, considering the political un-importance of those making them. But they do point out the growing pressure on U.S. bases and huge financial burden to host U.S. forces (annual $4 billion) while the Japanese government faces a serious financial crisis, not to mention the historical Okinawa base problems and the need to shrink Japan's fiscal budget.

       All in all, these three uncertainties would become more and more convincing objects against which Tokyo must hedge to ensure peace and stability in its surrounding region in the foreseeable future.

Conclusion: Activist Japanese Security Role Inevitable, But "Prudence" Must Prevail

       Those who believe Japan is a state of "conscientious objectors from military service" from the reading of the so-called pacifist constitution, must be upset by how Japan has leaped forward in security policy ever since the grand diplomatic failure of the Persian Gulf War of 1991. But you may hardly expect that postwar Japanese security policy which forswears the use of military means in foreign policy resource would be viable. As far as security policy that must be designed to protect nations and their vital interests is concerned, it is inevitable that Japan become more and more of a "normal state," as it faces an increasingly uncertain security environment surrounding Japan.

       But Japan should be developing a "prudent" statecraft to advance its security policy and foreign policy toward that of a "normal state." That is, Japan, as a nation that challenged the international order and tortured hundreds of thousands of people at home and abroad, especially in Asia only half a century ago, should not ignore its past wrong-doing which has caused lingering suspicions among its neighbors.

       There are three levels of reassurance measures I have in mind.

       First, Japan's security posture should be expanded within the framework of and in accordance with the U.S.-Japan alliance. But, the alliance should not be functioning as mere a safeguard of Japan's territory and its interests in the surrounding region, but should be used to ensure regional and global security to ease growing dissatisfaction on both sides of the Pacific regarding persistent asymmetries in the division of military roles and missions between Washington and Tokyo. Preserving the current "balanced" asymmetrical distribution of roles and missions, i.e., the United States assumes the role of "sword," while Japan plays the role of shield, but geographic areas and activities in which the United States and Japan would cooperate should be expanded in a way that, for instance, once a Navy-Theater-Wide TMD system has been fully developed, U.S. and Japanese Aegis ships together can be deployed in the Persian Gulf to protect our friends and allies from any missile threats posed by a "rogue state" in the region if need be.

       Second, the Japanese should bridge the serious discrepancy between "conservatives" and "liberals" in their society. Conservatives/nationalists tend to ignore Japan's troubled past, while liberals/pacifists tend to refuse facing reality in terms of national security. For example, as for the troubled relations with Koreans, Japan should do at least the following two things.

1. Thorough and comprehensive disclosures of official information regarding "comfort women," allegedly still classified within the National Police Agency, Defense Agency, and Interior Ministry,4 so that the Japanese public becomes fully aware of what is "true" in terms of the role of the government, transcending a variety of "interpretations" and "agitation" trumpeted by ideologically biased left wing activists and right wing scholars in Japan. Fundamental problems lie in the desperate lack of government information.

Next, we all are annoyed that after every "formal apology" made by the Emperors, Prime Ministers, and whoever else in the Japanese leadership, some cabinet member, one of only 22 political leaders of Japan, makes astonishingly inappropriate remarks on his personal "interpretation of history." Another remark of this kind would easily ruin constructive political leadership and good-will compromise demonstrated in the October 7-11 Japan-Korea summit. Therefore, ...

2. Every Cabinet should sign a cabinet resolution, or kakugi-kettei, at the initial cabinet meeting that would require only the 22 top political leaders of Japan in the Cabinet to commit themselves not to express their "personal" opinion regarding the "interpretation of history," so that no one in the Cabinet, while in office, would deviate from the official line and disrupt the relationship between Tokyo and other capitals in the region.5

       Third, the Japanese should make their security policy transparent and accountable. That is, the Japanese should reinforce the National Diet, a supreme organ of state power that consists of elected members, representatives of all people (Article 41 and 43 of the Constitution) to be able to wield a credible check-and-balance role with its executive counterparts, namely, the Cabinet and ministries. What is really needed is a new "National Security Act" to provide not only an authoritative reading of the constitution, but legal procedures for the use of force, and specific roles and missions for JSDF. The Guidelines legislation has created an opportunity for the Diet to build the foundation of a transparent, reasonable, and prudent national security policy. The legislative process would stir a major national debate, in the process creating a transparency that both Japan's neighbors and its American ally, will appreciate. Given that 80% of Diet members now share common views on national security, the time to do so is now.


1This section largely borrows analysis appeared in Michael J. Green and Akihisa Nagashima, "Key Arears to Watch in Japan-U.S. Security Relations," Japan Quarterly, January/March 1999, pp. 17-22.
2Michael J. Green, ...
3This section also largely borrows analysis appeared in Green and Nagashima, op. cit.
4Yoshimi Yoshiaki, "State's Crime Should be Compensated by State," Asahi Shimbun (August 22, 1995): 18. According to Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki of Chuo University, who discovered new information which prompted the Miyazawa government to accept the state's responsibility of organizing comfort women and Kono Yohei, then the Cabinet's Chief Secretary, to issue a formal apology in August 1993, there are still considerable amount of classified information within the related ministries of Japan. At the time the National Police Agency had issued passports for women sent to front-lines stretched all over Asia; however that has remained unclassified. The Ministry of Home is supposed to hold a significant amount of information, because the Ministry partly succeeded the Interior Ministry which controlled the Korea and Taiwan Governor's Office in the prewar period. As well thousands of administrative journals and war diaries are considered to be kept in the National Institute for Defense Studies of Defense Agency, but only hundreds of them have been declassified so far.
5Germany, for example, has a legislation to limit cabinet members' remark on Nazism. Needless to say, of course, we should not constrain any other person's freedom of speech, including politicians' right to express his/her "interpretation of history" that is supposed to be free, as President Kim suggested.



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