With Little Fanfare, Japan Just Changed the Way It Uses Its Military


May 3, 2019

Members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces' airborne troops stand at attention during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka Base, Japan, October 23, 2016, photo by Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces' airborne troops stand at attention during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka Base, Japan, October 23, 2016

Photo by Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy on May 3, 2019.

A new era may have dawned in Japan, but it has nothing to do with the country's next emperor. Instead, without much fanfare, the government took a small but significant step in the security domain. On April 26, in a move unlike any since 1945, it deployed its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) abroad to join a multinational force not connected to the United Nations.

In early April, Tokyo announced that the reign of Japan's new emperor, Crown Prince Naruhito, who took the throne on May 1, will be known as the Reiwa era, translated as “beautiful harmony.” Few outside of Japan paid much heed to the news, but inside the country, era names are important. Although it also uses the Gregorian calendar, the era name is used in public and on private forms, documents, and certificates, during ceremonies, and even on calendars and in some newspapers. “Beautiful harmony,” in other words, has been trending in Japan.

One day after it announced the Reiwa era, the government approved sending two Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) officers to Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula to serve under the command of the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO). Operating since 1982, the MFO monitors the 1979 cease-fire between Israel and Egypt that ended the state of war that had existed since the Arab-Israeli War. Unlike the fanfare that came with the declaration of the Reiwa era, this announcement did not capture much attention, domestically or internationally.

Understandably so. At first blush, dispatching two GSDF officers to a noncombat command in the Middle East seems like a whole lot of nothing. One officer, a lieutenant colonel, will serve as deputy head for liaison and coordination. The other, a captain, will serve as an assistant for operations. They will be armed with guns and rifles.

Moreover, Japan has been providing financial support to the MFO since 1988, amounting to a total of about $25 million. It is not new to peacekeeping operations either. Thirty years ago, it was not legally possible for Japan to deploy its troops on such overseas deployments. But following the enactment of a 1992 law, the country started dispatching troops overseas to work with U.N.-controlled peacekeeping operations. It has done so nine times.

Its participation in those operations came with five conditions: There had to be a cease-fire among the parties to the armed conflict; the host country and parties had to consent to both the U.N. operation and Japan's participation in it; the operation had to be strictly impartial; Japan would have to suspend or end its participation if any requirement ceased to exist; and SDF personnel could only use weapons for self-defense. The law was revised in 2001 so that Japanese soldiers could also use weapons to protect non-SDF members, such as U.N. staffers or NGO workers who are at the scene with SDF personnel when an attack occurs.

For more than a decade, this was the framework guiding Japanese involvement in multinational operations. Then, in 2015, Japan passed a suite of new security laws that came into effect in 2016. These greenlit new missions for the SDF, including protection for internally displaced people and others and the rescue of U.N. personnel and NGO workers where necessary. At the same time, SDF personnel's use of weapons was expanded to cover activities not related to self-defense, such as joint protection of peacekeeper camps.

To date, Japan has not undertaken any such activities. Despite having troops in South Sudan as part of the U.N. mission there, no situation arose in which it could perform its new responsibilities before Tokyo abruptly decided to withdraw its forces, leaving only four officers at the headquarters of the U.N. mission. The result has been a glaring absence of Japanese forces abroad in any U.N. peacekeeping mission.

The Sinai operation is a small, albeit visible, demonstration that Tokyo is putting its 2015 legislation into practice and changing how it deploys the Self-Defense Forces.

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But the Sinai mission is different. It will mark the first time that SDF personnel will take advantage of a separate, often overlooked, 2015 revision to the 1992 law that enables the SDF to participate in overseas peacekeeping operations even if they are not under U.N. control. The difference may not seem important, but it is. Not only does this mark the restart of SDF operations overseas since the South Sudan withdrawal in 2017, but the Sinai operation is also a small, albeit visible, demonstration that Tokyo is putting its 2015 legislation into practice and changing how it deploys the SDF.

Observers should not expect the deployment to set up a chain of events that leads to the SDF suddenly fighting shoulder to shoulder with coalition forces in combat to topple authoritarian regimes or root out terrorists, but it is a significant step forward.

Security policies change incrementally in Japan. And should this new deployment go well, it could mark the first of many international operations of much greater numbers in places where the SDF is asked to contribute to peace and stability alongside multinational forces. No longer tethered by a need to be under U.N. control, Japan will have greater freedom to deploy its SDF overseas on a wider spectrum of possible missions. While it may not seem like much now, we may be witnessing the start of a different kind of new era for Japan.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

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