Earlier this week, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reported on an emerging debate within Japanese lawmakers in the ruling coalition. The debate concerns the changing role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF), specifically over the question of how much leeway should be given to Japanese troops in using their weapons during international cooperation activities. The debate is in part made necessary by the Abe government’s decision last year to pass a resolution reinterpreting the Japanese constitution’s post-war ban on collective self-defense. According to the Yomiuri’s report, legislators in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — the prime minister’s party — are eager to relax restrictions on the use of weaponry by the SDF while their junior coalition partners in the Komeito party urge restraint, citing constitutional concerns.
The minutiae of the debate revolve around the specific conditions under which SDF troops would be able to discharge their weapons. According to the Yomiuri‘s reports, there are two primary categories. Under the first, SDF troops would only discharge their weapons in “self-preservation” scenarios, otherwise minimizing the use of weaponry. Under this set of rules, SDF troops would be permitted to use their weapons to save their own lives or the lives of civilians under their protection.
The second category — “mission execution” — would allow SDF troops to discharge their weapons more liberally in eliminating resistance to any potential mission, or suppressing targets during an operation. Until today, Japanese SDF troops have used their weapons in line with the first category. The LDP is keen to expand this to include “mission execution” scenarios. Komeito continues to insist that short of a formal constitutional amendment, the SDF cannot radically alter its current “self-preservation” stance on the use of weapons. “We are far from a conclusion,” one Komeito member told the press.
The debate highlights some of the frictions within the ruling coalition that will make complete constitutional overhaul, as per the LDP’s latest proposals, a challenging endeavor. Following December’s snap election, the LDP-Komeito coalition won a supermajority in the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Diet, and a simple majority in the House of Councilors. While the current coalition’s influence in Japanese politics is unquestionably high, there remain considerable disagreements on national security issues and particularly the role of the Japanese military.
In early 2015, the execution of two Japanese citizens at the hands of Islamic State terrorists slightly shifted the debate in favor of the LDP, resulting in wider sympathies for a more activist and global Japanese security presence. Still, without the support of Komeito and less conservative LDP members, the Abe government has a long way to go in navigating the long road to constitutional overhaul.
The current debate among legislators in the ruling coalition could lead to important legislation. The LDP, for example, imagines a law that would allow the Japanese government to deploy the SDF abroad as necessary. To make this law practically viable, LDP legislators see a need for relaxing the SDF’s restrictions on the use of weaponry.