Japan inches toward a full-fledged militaryTOKYO - Amid growing security concerns among its people, especially after neighboring North Korea's nuclear test, Japan will almost certainly enact bills soon to upgrade the status of the Defense Agency to a ministry more than five decades after its inception.
To be sure, upgrading the Defense Agency may be more symbolic than substantive. Nonetheless, it is significant because the agency has so far been kept in a relatively low-profile position under the nation's postwar pacifist constitution.
The bills to be passed into law soon will also legally expand the "primary duties" of the Self-Defense Forces, which were established along with the Defense Agency in 1954, to include overseas peacekeeping operations, including support for the US military. Under the current law, the SDF's "primary duties" are limited to national defense and disaster relief at home. Overseas operations are classified as "supplementary duties".
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in late September, has made enacting the defense bills one of his top priorities in the current extraordinary session of the Diet, Japan's parliament. The Diet session, which elected him as Japanese leader on its first day, is to run until mid-December.
The Japanese public's growing desire for a sturdier national-defense system, especially amid North Korea's nuclear and missile activities, has significantly boosted the chances of the legislation. The ruling coalition led by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has also gained political momentum from its victories in by-elections held for the House of Representatives in two major prefectures - Kanagawa and Osaka - in October, and then in the Okinawa gubernatorial election in November.
The two defense bills - one to revise the Defense Agency Establishment Law and the other to rewrite the SDF Law - were passed by the full House on Thursday and sent immediately to the House of Councilors, after being approved by the Security Committee earlier in the day. It is now almost certain that the bills will be enacted during the current Diet session after being passed by the full House of Councilors.
In addition to the LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito, the largest opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan, voted in favor of the bills. The DPJ softened its confrontational approach to the LDP-led coalition in the Diet after the recent gubernatorial election on Okinawa in which a candidate backed by the DPJ and other opposition parties lost to another candidate supported by the ruling coalition. The prefecture hosts three-fourths of US bases on Japanese soil.
In the Okinawa vote, the DPJ put priority on the campaign alliance among opposition parties, putting aside sharp policy differences, including over security. Although many DPJ lawmakers had said publicly that they would support the defense bills if they were voted on, the party had balked at clarifying its position on the bills until after the Okinawa election, apparently for fear of hurting its campaign alliance with the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. These two leftist parties have vehemently opposed the bills.
Less than a week after the Okinawa vote, the DPJ made clear that it would consider backing the defense bills if certain conditions are met, including thorough government measures to prevent a recurrence of a bid-rigging scandal involving defense-facility projects.
In addition to upgrading the Defense Agency to a ministry, the defense bills would scrap the scandal-tainted Defense Facilities Administration Agency, an affiliate of the Defense Agency, and integrate its functions into the ministry.
DPJ secretary general Yukio Hatoyama said last Friday, "Upgrading the Defense Agency to a ministry is basically a sure thing."
On the eve of the vote, the DPJ formally decided to support the bills - on the condition that they are attached by a resolution calling for strict civilian control on defense issues as well as a thorough probe into the bid-rigging scandal and measures to prevent a recurrence of such a scandal - apparently in hopes of maintaining support from conservative voters amid the nuclear crisis involving North Korea. The DPJ condition was accepted by the LDP-led coalition.
The defense bills were submitted to the last ordinary Diet session, which ended in mid-June, but were carried over to the current extraordinary Diet session because deliberations in the previous session were shelved over the bid-rigging scandal involving senior officials of the Defense Facilities Administration Agency.
A bill to revise the Fundamental Law of Education, another of Prime Minister Abe's top priorities in the current Diet session, is also expected to be enacted soon. The education bill is aimed at instilling patriotism among students at school. It will be the first revision of the basic education law since it took effect in 1947, replacing the Imperial Rescript on Education, a symbol of the nation's prewar education system..
If the defense and education bills are both enacted soon, as widely expected, it will give a boost to Abe's conservative credentials. Upgrading the Defense Agency to a ministry is a long-cherished dream of conservatives. The current basic education law has also been criticized by conservatives as putting too much emphasis on individual freedom at the expense of love of country and respect for the public interests and traditional culture and values.
There is a rowing discontent among many conservatives that Abe has changed his coat since taking office. Abe is widely known for his nationalist views on history and hawkish stance toward such countries as China. But in a concerted attempt to repair damaged relations with China and South Korea, Abe has either toned down or even reversed his previous rhetoric, at least in public. Less than two weeks after being elected, Abe made a whirlwind fence-mending tour to Beijing and Seoul.
Under such circumstances, suspicions seem to be brewing on both sides of the political spectrum, with his conservative supports fearing that Abe might further deviate from the path they initially expected him to tread as premier, while critics of his hawkish and nationalist views expressed in the past on history and other issues apprehending that he might revert to type before long.
If the bill to revise the Defense Agency Establishment Law is enacted soon, as widely expected, the agency will officially become the Defense Ministry in January, and the director general of the agency will become the defense minister. It will be the first time the name of the agency has been changed in its 53-year history.
At present, the Defense Agency is under the direct control of the prime minister as an affiliate of the Cabinet Office. One of the state ministers at the Cabinet Office heads the agency as its director general.
Unlike ministries, the current agency cannot call snap cabinet meetings to make big decisions, nor can it submit bills to the Diet on its own. Instead, the agency has to go through the Cabinet Office. The agency also has to make budget requests in the name of the Cabinet Office rather than the agency chief. The change in status to a ministry will enable the defense entity to follow administrative procedures more smoothly.
To be sure, upgrading the Defense Agency may be more symbolic than substantive. Probably, what matters more is pride, as well as morale among the agency staff and SDF personnel. Agency officials often complain that their counterparts at foreign countries' defense ministries or departments do not understand that they are dealing with people from a less important institution.
But nonetheless, it is significant because the agency has so far been kept in a relatively low-profile position under the nation's postwar pacifist constitution.
The current constitution is widely interpreted as forbidding the possession of a military. In reality Japan has about 240,000 SDF troops and one of the world's biggest defense expenditures. Successive governments have explained away the contradiction by claiming that SDF is not a military but a kind of police force.
The LDP's junior coalition partner, New Komeito, dropped its long-standing opposition to upgrading the Defense Agency to a ministry after the last election in September last year, in which the LDP under Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, won big, resulting in the significant reduction of New Komeito's weight in the coalition.
New Komeito, which is a self-proclaimed party of peace and welfare backed by the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, does not want to see the enactment of the defense bills delayed until next year, because it fears an adverse effect on its prospects in unified local elections next spring and a triennial House of Councilors election next summer.
Growing sphere of activity
The focus of public attention has been on the bill to revise the Defense Agency Establishment Law to upgrade the agency to a ministry. But the bill to revise the SDF Law to expand the SDF's "primary duties" may have much more far-reaching effects.
The revision of the SDF Law will put such activities as international emergency assistance missions, participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations and support for the US military during emergencies near Japan on par with national-defense and disaster-relief operations at home.
Japan has beefed up its security alliance with the United States in the past decade. The pace of this move has been accelerated since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US. The two countries signed a final agreement on the realignment of US bases and troops in Japan in May. This agreement will further cement the bonds between the close allies through increased integration of their military operations and pave the way for Tokyo's greater involvement in US-led operations not only in Asia but globally.
The postwar constitution imposes strict restrictions on Japanese military activities abroad. Like his predecessors, Koizumi stretched the boundaries of the constitution by supporting US operations in Afghanistan and by deploying non-combat troops to Iraq, the first SDF mission to a combat zone since World War II. Now Abe appears determined to stretch the constitutional boundaries further. Heightened security concerns among many Japanese have apparently made it politically possible or at least easier for him to do so.
Abe has already called for studying whether the SDF can shoot down a missile flying over Japanese territory en route to the US. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki also said recently that the government may review a 2003 statement in which it vowed not to use the planned missile defense system to defend Japan's allies. The government's current interpretation of the pacifist constitution bars collective defense - or coming to the military aid of an ally under attack.
The soon-to-be-made revision of the SDF Law to upgrade overseas activities to "primary duties" has already raised concerns among many critics, who say that the LDP-led coalition government, taking its cue from the legislation, might rev up its dispatch of SDF troops abroad, especially in step with the US.
Military commentator Tetsuo Maeda is critical of the defense bills. Testifying at the House Security Committee recently as an expert witness, he said the revision of the SDF Law "will drastically change the SDF's nature away from one dealing exclusively with self-defense. Rather than await constitutional revision, the move is designed to push reality further ahead."
He maintained that including overseas operations in the SDF's "primary duties" will be incompatible with Article 9 of the constitution and condemned the move as something like "the inferior SDF Law overthrowing its superior, the constitution" or "a mini-constitutional revision".
Critics have said the LDP-led coalition has dispatched SDF troops to the Indian Ocean and Iraq through ad hoc legislative measures "on the easy-payment system", out of political consideration to the US.
A special two-year anti-terrorism law was enacted to provide support to US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, and has now been extended three times - most recently in October - since it was enacted in November 2001. To enable the provision of humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Iraq, the government pushed through a special four-year law for Iraq in July 2003 and dispatched Ground SDF troops there.
Japan pulled out some 600 non-combat ground troops, deployed in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah, in July, but the Air SDF unit, stationed in Kuwait, is continuing its mission, with its C-130 cargo planes transporting personnel and materials for multinational forces and the UN between the two Middle Eastern nations.
To enable Japan to contribute more smoothly and in a timely manner to international efforts to establish peace, instead of enforcing a special law that is effective for only a limited period each time an emergency occurs, the LDP has already finalized the outline of a draft bill for a permanent law to dispatch SDF personnel overseas. The draft bill would allow such an overseas mission even without a UN resolution or a request from an international organization.
Toward constitutional amendments
About a year ago, the LDP adopted its draft of a new constitution to replace the current war-renouncing, pacifist constitution, written by the US occupation forces soon after Japan's 1945 defeat in World War II. Establishing a "self-imposed constitution" has been the LDP's credo since its 1955 founding. But this was the first time the LDP had actually proposed a new constitution in writing.
The LDP draft calls for rewriting Article 9 to acknowledge clearly the existence of a "military for self-defense". It also calls for more active participation in international peacekeeping activities.
Political momentum for revising the constitution has mounted since the LDP's landslide victory in general elections in September 2005. The LDP-New Komeito coalition garnered more than a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. And Abe, a nationalist and staunch advocate of a new constitution, became the new LDP president and prime minister in late September this year.
Abe has said he will seek to have constitutional amendments realized within five years. It remains to be seen, however, whether the supreme law can be revised while he is in office. Under Article 96, any amendments must be proposed with support of two-thirds or more of both houses of the Diet and then be approved in a national referendum with a simple majority vote.
Legislation setting procedures for such a referendum is still pending in the Diet. It is expected to be carried over to the next ordinary Diet session, to convene in January for a 150-day run. The LDP-New Komeito coalition is far short of a two-thirds majority in the House of Councilors. In addition, New Komeito remains reluctant about rewriting Article 9.
Abe is widely believed to be determined to begin addressing the issue of constitutional amendments in earnest after next summer's House of Councilors election, the first full-scale national election he faces as premier. Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the opposition DPJ, has vowed to deprive the LDP-led coalition of a majority as a significant stepping stone to power. If that actually happens, the Abe government would be left lame-duck.
The growing political momentum to change the constitution has been hailed by many security and foreign-policy experts in Japan's most important ally, the US, as clear evidence that Tokyo is going in the right direction to become a more reliable and responsible security partner regionally and globally.
But it has raised grave concerns among many of Japan's Asian neighbors who fear that any revision would let loose Japanese militarism, 60 years after the World War II. Many in Japan's neighboring countries, especially in China and South Korea, still harbor bitter memories of Japan's wartime aggression and atrocities.
Hiroshi Masuda, professor at Toyo Eiwa Women's University and proponent of the soon-to-be enacted defense bills, testified recently at the Security Committee as an expert witness. He said the government should give a sincere explanation to Asian neighbors, especially China and South Korea, to dispel their anticipated concerns over the bills.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.