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The legitimacy of Japan’s Self Defense Forces

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In Brief

At the beginning of the film Bokoku no Aegis (‘Aegis of a ruined country’), based on the popular novel by Fukui Haruhito, the special agent of the fictional Japanese defence intelligence agency DAIS reads from the thesis of a murdered naval student: ‘Aegis: the mythical shield of the god Zeus. A ship armed with the Aegis system is the ultimate defensive weapon but dare we ask: What is the purpose of such a shield?

If Japan cannot change, it will no longer be worth defending, then Aegis will be nothing more than a shield for a lost nation.’


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Its theme seemed to capture the complexities and ambivalence, what Richard Samuels dubbed the ‘ghost of Yamagata Aritomo’, which stalked the Self Defense Forces and the question of its post-war purpose.

For much of Japan’s post-war era, a subtle artifice was pragmatically utilised to evade an open avowal of the goals and purpose of the institutions of national security. It was, at its crux, an effort at strategic avoidance, which sought to transfer any such reckoning to the distant future. Yet it is the nature and consequence of such a policy of evasion that has proven to be ultimately eroding to Japan, for it is forced to seek its identity in reaction to events, rather than in their anticipation and in the process becomes their prisoner.

The tension and catastrophe of the 11 March triple disaster in Japan shattered what little remained of this ambivalence and artifice, and once more focused attention on the role and purpose of the Self Defense Forces. It is a question that is necessarily inseparable from the content and form of Japanese power and its relation to the balance and equilibrium in East Asia.

The physical and spatial isolation of these islands no longer afforded the margin of protection that Japan had relied upon throughout its history. The shield of the United States which had provided the artifice for Japan’s post-war conceit of seeing itself as a ‘civilian power’ could no longer obscure the realities of the post-Cold War era. The material, psychological and political limitations of the new era shattered the consensus upon which such illusions were based. This would be the first lesson of the post-Cold War era. The second lesson would be that the principles and nature of the legitimacy of post-war security could no longer obscure the crisis of purpose that afflicted the SDF.

The post-Cold War transformation of the SDF at once reflected the ascendance of a more pragmatic and astute calculation of national interest and the long-term implications of relative economic decline. A turbulent decade characterised by natural disaster and the rise of substantive economic, military and politics threats had sobered the strategic calculus of what was desirable and indeed possible. Japanese policymakers moved cautiously and pragmatically to alter the post-war limitations on national security and transform its security alliance with the United States. Each change reflected Japan’s shifting assessment of the relative importance of military capability to national power. It was a success because it was based at once on a misunderstanding and an evasion. A misunderstanding because it continued to cloak Japan’s sustained security evolution in the well-worn garb of ‘defensive defence’ and ‘comprehensive security’ and not as an explicit attempt to rebalance the instruments of Japanese power. And an evasion because it was based on misdirection in order to justify security transformation, highlighting the threat which emanated from the Korean peninsula whilst in content and form it was an unmistakable reaction to the growth of Chinese power.

It has been observed that statesmen cannot choose their policy with the illusion that all options are available; rather the material, psychological and political limitations of the moment serve necessarily as the contours within which policy must be conceived. Yet there are moments when supreme weakness might be transformed into renewed strength and purpose. For just as Yamagata Aritomo and his protégés interpreted the era during and after the First World War as an ‘opportunity’ the triple disaster might similarly provide the impetus for a new definition of Japanese purpose. Such a purpose rests on the construction of a robust and flexible legislative framework for national security that replaces the artifice and evasions which characterised Yoshida and his successor’s post-war choices.

Concretely it entails the reinterpretation of the meaning of ‘war potential’ and revision of the Japanese Cabinet Legislation Bureau’s interpretation banning collective security, to permit the SDF to engage in collective action alongside the United States and its regional allies. This would permit Japan to deploy a ‘full spectrum’ military force configured toward a robust expeditionary and asymmetric capability and emphasising the expansion of special forces, intelligence and drone capabilities, the acquisition of fifth generation stealth fighters, and greater power projection platforms central to sustaining out of area operations. Such operational capabilities would provide Japan with the strategic option to respond rapidly to regional contingencies on the Korean peninsula or further afield to provide disaster relief in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. It would provide Japan with the capability to assist ASEAN states if threatened and to forge deeper and more expansive security partnerships with Australia, India and South Korea. And it would finally replace Japan’s postwar ambivalence and artifice with an active commitment to regional security and prosperity.

An expansive commitment to regional security in content and form provides an answer to the question of the purpose of the postwar armed forces. Its success ultimately rests on Japan’s willingness to embrace something of the ‘virtue of boldness’ and to act as a key component in the revitalisation, re-conceptualisation and rebalancing of the security order in East Asia.

Andrew Levidis is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne and a Monbukagakusho scholar of Kyoto University.

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