New Leaders Forum

Japan’s Crisis and the SDF

Japan’s Self-Defense Force had good reviews for its post-crisis performance. Is the public ready for more?

Even before the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) seized power in September 2009, Japanese leaders’ efforts to reform the country’s security policies had stalled. The trajectory that popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi set for Japanese security revision during his tenure (2001-2006) seemed steady until his immediate predecessor, Abe Shinzo, failed to maintain public confidence in his—and the ruling party’s—ability to lead the country. 

Under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, the outlook for security policy revision seemed bleak—especially after his high-profile mishandling of the Futenma relocation issue—a joint US-Japan agreement aimed at moving US military personnel/facilities from Futenma to Camp Schwab—at the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010.  However, Japan’s official response to the earthquake and tsunami may present new opportunities for the country’s leaders to pursue a loosening of restrictions on Japan’s security practices and policies.

Much of the Japanese press corps and various renowned Japan scholars have remarked on the great success of the deployment of Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) personnel to the disaster-stricken northeastern coast of Japan following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Out of a total 240,000 SDF troops, 100,000 were dispatched to provide disaster relief and execute search and rescue operations. 

The SDF effort was viewed positively by the Japanese public, and according to many observers the SDF has experienced a significant boost to its legitimacy in the eyes of the Japanese people. This may have wide ramifications as Japanese troops have thus far been restricted from engaging in overseas operations close to combat areas due to constitutional limitations on the deployment of SDF personnel abroad. 

Although such restrictions are typically set forth through interpretations of Japan’s ‘Peace Constitution’ by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, they are also largely normative. Scarred by the legacy of World War II and Imperial Japan’s atrocities in Asia, the Japanese public long held the SDF in low regard. But this trend has reversed in recent years, and with the SDF enjoying wider public support due to its efforts in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the public may be prepared to see Japanese troops engaged in more operations overseas.

If the public continues to support wider SDF engagement at home and abroad, Japanese leaders may find the political will to push for the gradual easing of restrictions on SDF deployments. Still, it must be noted that security reform isn’t a current priority for the DPJ government. Political survival for the DPJ government rests upon its ability to govern effectively, and the prevailing political climate in Japan won’t favour moves in the direction of security reform unless the DPJ can recover some of its early momentum.

It should be remembered that Koizumi enjoyed popularity despite the significant security policy measures and reforms he enacted, not because of them. Overall, wider public support for the SDF can be an important contributing factor to the eventual loosening of restrictions on military deployments and activities, but much will be determined by the regional security environment and the central government’s capacity to enact reforms. Indeed, it’s quite likely that China’s aggressive stance toward Japan during the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands crisis last September may have contributed as much or more to an overall shift in public attitudes regarding the need for greater SDF involvement in regional defence and security affairs.