Abe reviews the fleet

On the 29th of October, Prime Minister Abe reviewed the Japanese fleet at Sagami Bay in Kanagawa. In this week’s issue of his email magazine, Abe poetically recounts the review, speaking of clouds giving way to an autumnal blue sky, of the deep azure of the sea, and of the majesty and magnificence of the line of warships preparing to return to the Indian Ocean, where, thanks to a recent extension of the enabling law, they will continue to provide refueling capabilities in support of coalition operations in Afghanistan.

The real meat of his message, however, is towards the end. He writes [my translation]: “In our country, we cannot do without the Self-Forces in their capacity for crisis management and disaster relief and reconstruction. Abroad, the Self-Defense Forces exert great effort [literally, 汗を流しています, to sweat] around the clock to contribute to international peace and stability. I am working to develop a system by which international peace cooperation operations are the primary function of the Self-Defense Forces [emphasis added].”

This statement is consistent with the broad thrust of Japanese security policy is the past fifteen years, since the passage of the International Peace Cooperation Law. Japan will develop a military force that can serve as a pillar of international stability, which reflects Japan’s dependence on trade, especially energy imports from the Middle East and limits imposed by its massive debt burden. Let the US invest in major platforms suited to inflicting massive amounts of damage over incredible distances; Japan will excel in providing humanitarian assistance in failing and failed states and providing rear-area support to warfighters when the situation requires it.

The only question that remains is whether the Japanese public will support such a role for Japan. Indications suggest that the Japanese people can countenance the JSDF being sent abroad to help stabilize troubled countries. While this poll, conducted by the Asahi Shimbun in June 2006, showed that those surveyed were pleased to see the Ground Self-Defense Forces leave Iraq (and a majority wished they had left sooner), the same poll showed that 49% of those surveyed felt that the Iraq deployment was “good for Japan.” Among those who said that it was good, 46% said it was good because it “contributed to the rebuilding of Iraq,” with the second-greatest response being the 30% who said that it “demonstrated Japan’s presence in the international community.” (Both figures were considerably greater than the 14% who said it was good for relations with the US.)

This confirms the impression I got from speaking with Japan Defense Agency (JDA) officials in May: they told me that the Japanese public will support a more active JSDF, but only in activities that contribute to peace and stability.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether public support would hold up should a soldier die in the line of duty. The Japanese people’s resolve to see their country play a greater role in upholding the international system has yet to be tested.

UPDATE: I want to add a brief note to emphasize to readers just how extraordinary Abe’s fleet review is. Consider that sixteen years ago, during the Gulf crisis, JSDF officers could not even consult with the prime minister, because he feared that receiving advice from the armed forces would skew his judgement in deciding how Japan should respond to the crisis. At that time, civilian control of the military, exercised through the director-general of the JDA, meant using civilian officials to cordon off the military from the rest of society. Until recently, senior bureaucrats were not even from within the JDA itself — they were seconded from other ministries. Aside from some cooperation on anti-submarine warfare with the US during the 1980s, the JSDF was expected to sit with its tanks up in Hokkaido and wait for the Russians to come.

And now Abe is reviewing the MSDF fleet, dressed in morning coat and top hat, and issuing public messages full of effusive praise — and there is no negative reaction in the press or in the Diet.

So while Japan’s security policy remains restricted in many ways, public and official attitudes about Japan’s playing a greater role in the region and the world by contributing armed forces to operations overseas have changed substantially, suggesting that it is only a matter of time before Japan loosens the constitutional restrictions that have tied its hands.

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