No. 13 — March 31, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Barbara Wanner

Reflecting Tokyo's growing concern about potentially destabilizing developments in Northeast Asia, top Japanese officials recently urged the timely development of legislation to authorize the Self-Defense Forces to respond to acts of foreign aggression. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, addressing the March 19 National Defense Academy graduation ceremony, emphasized the importance of getting statutes on the books to enable the SDF "to effectively and smoothly implement their missions." A week later, Japan Defense Agency Director General Tsutomu Kawara reiterated the need for expeditious action on such initiatives, telling a National Defense Academy Medical College audience that JDA would work with the SDF in drafting new guidelines for the use of weapons in domestic emergencies.

In theory, domestic and international law gives the SDF the right to defend Japan in the event of a direct attack. However, Japanese law does not explicitly state what the nation's armed forces can and should do in such an emergency. Nor does it specify how the SDF interfaces with the National Police Agency and local governments in responding to an outside assault or in protecting citizens. This means that if a North Korean missile hit Japan tomorrow — a conceivable event given Pyongyang's August 1998 launch of a Taepodong-2 missile over Honshu (see JEI Report No. 34B, September 4, 1998) — or if a terrorist group waged an attack from within — not unlike the March 1995 gassing of the Tokyo subway system by the Aum Shinrikyo cult (see JEI Report No. 10A, March 10, 2000) — the SDF could not act.

The predisposition to inaction caused by this statutory vacuum baffles many American observers. Japan defense experts explain that Tokyo, in fact, has been conducting studies since 1977 to determine what legislation is needed to authorize the SDF to respond to a direct attack. But the government has had little incentive to follow through because of the public's still-strong pacifist sentiments. Many people apparently have not forgotten the actions of the repressive, pre-1945 militarist regime and, until recently, were categorically averse to any initiative that would empower the SDF. In addition to defining the circumstances under which the SDF may launch or continue combat missions, the legislation must address the means of establishing temporary command stations, a contingency that may require the expropriation of private property.

Pyongyang's missile launch and its dispatch of spy ships into Japanese waters only five months later dramatically changed Tokyo's security focus — and that of individual Japanese. Popular opinion about the nation's defense needs has become increasingly pragmatic, defense insiders say (see JEI Report No. 34A, September 3, 1999). Sensing a more receptive climate for consideration of legislation to revise SDF rules of engagement, decisionmakers evidently have decided that the time is ripe to push for parliamentary action.

"More than 20 years have passed since the study [of the SDF's response to direct attacks] began, a period that has witnessed several events threatening the peace and safety of our nation and a corresponding increase in public concern over crisis management," Mr. Obuchi told the NDA audience. "I believe deeply in the necessity of the legislation, which would allow the SDF to act responsibly under civilian control while protecting life and property in the event of an armed attack on our country." The prime minister added that the government hopes to submit the bills during the Diet session that begins in January 2001.

Unnamed government sources later indicated that drafting the legislation would take at least six months. The rules of engagement will vary according to the situation, the same people suggested. They will cover not only possible missile strikes but also guerrilla attacks within Japan, emergencies in areas around Japan and United Nations peacekeeping activities. The May 1999 package of bills implementing the September 1997 U.S.-Japan defense operational guidelines gives the SDF the legal authority to provide U.S. forces with logistical and other noncombat support in the event of an outbreak of hostilities or other crises in "areas surrounding Japan" (see JEI Report No. 21B, May 28, 1999). However, this legislation does not deal with the prickly matter of the SDF's use of weaponry, even for self-defense, which is why the new initiative is needed, experts say.

Notwithstanding Mr. Obuchi's support for the new legislation, JDA officials could face a bumpy road in the coming months drafting the necessary changes to the Self-Defense Forces Law, the Building Standards Law (for the temporary expropriation of private property) and the Graveyards and Burial Law (for the cremation of those killed in action), among other laws. Indicative of legislators' continued queasiness about giving the SDF a freer hand, the Diet, during its consideration of the guidelines legislation last spring, was forced to postpone action on a related bill that would allow the SDF to inspect vessels that are suspicious-looking or that are believed to have violated a U.N.-imposed embargo. The sticking point concerned language specifying when and to what extent the SDF could fire at ships trying to evade interdiction (see JEI Report No. 17B, April 30, 1999).

Defense officials have not indicated whether they expect legislators to revisit the ship-inspection bill when the SDF engagement measures are presented to the Diet. JDA's strategy both in crafting and introducing this legislative package as well as in tidying up the unfinished business concerning ship inspections may depend on political developments. Mr. Obuchi must dissolve the Diet for lower house elections on or before October 19. The successor government may provide an even more receptive — or indifferent — environment for security-related initiatives.

 The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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