Japan: An Accident Waiting to Happen

Shozo Azuma is a member of Japan's House of Representatives and former parliamentary vice minister of foreign affairs

Developments in recent U.S.-Japan talks on security cooperation have been hailed as a sign that the historically lop-sided alliance is entering a more mature phase. Various initiatives--the Acquisitions and Cross-Servicing Agreement, a Special Action Committee on Okinawa and continuing review of the U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines--seem to suggest that a serious effort to enhance bilateral cooperation is underway. But the two sides are talking past each other. While Washington seeks confirmation of what Tokyo will or will not do to assist the United States in the event of a crisis, Japan is stuck in a debate over what it can or cannot do under its Constitution.

Just ask a Japanese official whether the recently signed Acquisitions and Cross-Servicing Agreement applies to crisis contingencies as well as to peacetime operations. Better yet, inquire whether Japan, under the defense guidelines, would be able to supply oil or parts to U.S. military units protecting Japanese interests, rescue sailors from U.S. ships disabled by enemy fire, or treat GIs injured in combat in a regional crisis.

The response will invariably be: "as long as such actions do not exceed the scope of action allowed under the Constitution" or, to put it another way, strain official interpretations of the document's renunciation of "the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes." Consider an example of this mind-set: Despite the fact that the international community recognizes that a forceful response to a violation of the United Nations Charter does not conflict with the charter's own ban on force, the Japanese government maintains its own views on what constitutes an illegal use of force and uses these broad, generalized definitions to justify its nonparticipation.

Another example of Japanese "exceptionalism" can be seen in official positions on collective self-defense. While asserting that Japan has an inherent right to collective defense, the government claims that the constitutional ban on force precludes it from exercising this right and thus participating in collective-security actions. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the government believes it can defend itself and enjoy the benefits of collective defense without having to worry about fulfilling corresponding obligations.

At the root of this selfish "logic" is Japan's five-decade-old security policy of "one-nation pacifism." Centered on "non-entanglement," the doctrine not only lacks any of the positive elements of its Western counterparts, but it also indulges in the fantasy that as long as the islands of Japan remain peaceful, they will be immune to foreign crises. This passivism has infected the nation with a false sense of security, commonly referred to as the postwar "peace stupor." Truth be told, Japan is not prepared to deal with a crisis of any nature, domestic or foreign; the nation is an accident waiting to happen. The government's response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake and Japan's internal paralysis during the Gulf crisis exposed the inadequacy of its security system.

Despite the urgent need for new approaches, there is an appalling lack of political initiative in Tokyo. A persistent fear of being branded a "hawk" muzzles security discussions at the upper echelons of power. The failure of Japanese leaders, for the second time this century, to assert control over Japan's military, as reflected in the absence of legislation to govern Japan's 230,000-member Self-Defense Force in a crisis, is the most disturbing manifestation of this "security allergy." The lack of a legal mechanism for emergencies leaves the nation without any predetermined procedures to act in a crisis.

Criticism of Japan's "checkbook diplomacy" and its self-exemption from the "blood and sweat" aspects of U.N. peacekeeping missions elevated security issues to new heights in Japan after the Gulf War. In 1992, legislation authorizing conditional participation in certain U.N. operations was adapted. While this development suggested more realistic security attitudes, it was proceeded by a protracted debate on whether the use of weapons--or even carrying them--by Japanese troops serving overseas violated the Constitution's ban on force. After months of delay, a compromise left the decision up to each soldier.

Such irresponsible decisions will persist, and progress in bilateral-security talks will remain negligible, unless politically expedient constitutional interpretations are jettisoned, along with other outmoded ideologies of the Cold War that enjoy currency in leadership circles. Regrettably, Japan's government seems unable, or unwilling, to make any distinction between constraints imposed by the Constitution itself and restrictions resulting from expansive interpretations of the Constitution.

Japan desperately needs basic security legislation that would allow it to deal democratically with domestic crises and international contingencies. New security initiatives are likely to rekindle anxiety among Japan's neighbors, which remain apprehensive about Tokyo's recurring bouts of historical amnesia. But such reactions overlook the fact that the existing situation leaves restrictions on Japanese military action up to arbitrary, malleable political interpretations of the Constitution. The main purpose of new legislation would be to introduce a true system of civilian control to replace these vague limitations.

Furthermore, assertions of hidden military ambitions ignore the actual status of Japan's military. Although carefully masked in the euphemism of Self-Defense Force, no amount of window-dressing can disguise the fact that Japan supports a quarter-million-strong, state-of-the-art army and ranks among the top four countries in the world in terms of total military spending. By openly acknowledging these realities, Japan's leaders could help allay the residual fears of its wary neighbors.

New legislation would not imply unrestricted unilateral action nor mean that Japan could be compelled to act against its will. What it would entail is a framework for Japan to cooperate, should the nation, as a whole, determine that cooperation is in the country's best interests.

Until Japan adopts an honest approach to security discussions and musters the courage to address the Constitution free of ideological blinders, bilateral initiatives are doomed to failure. It is time for its leaders to heed the warnings and own up to their responsibilities to the Japanese people, Japan's most important ally and the world. The alternative--clinging to an obsolete doctrine--risks condemning the nation to political isolation, with only its legendary kamikaze winds to come to its aid in the future. If it comes down to this, it seems more likely that the nation will find itself twisting in these winds, left alone to fend for itself.

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