Japan Data

A Quarter-Century of Developments in National Security Legislation

Politics Society

Japan’s national defense policy has evolved as a cumulative response to world events since the end of the Cold War. It has gained new aspects through a series of conflicts, crises, and terrorist acts, including the Gulf War of 1991, the first North Korean nuclear crisis of 1993, the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, the counterterror military action in Afghanistan, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Humiliation in the Gulf War

The biggest shock to Japan's national defense policy came at the time of the Gulf War, which erupted in January 1991. Despite Japan having helped finance the military action by the US-led coalition to the tune of more than ¥1 trillion, its contribution was met with a degree of criticism in the international community. Some accused Japan of "checkbook diplomacy," splashing out money but not committing troops. The criticism was viewed by many in the government as a political embarrassment.

Japan reacted swiftly to the cool reception, dispatching Maritime Self-Defense Force minesweepers in April 1991 to help protect shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. The professed rationale for the deployment was to ensure the safety of Japanese shipping; the sole legal basis was the Self-Defense Forces Act of 1954.

Steps in Transforming Japan’s National Security Legislation (1)

1991 Jan Gulf War
Apr Japan dispatches minesweepers to Persian Gulf
1992 Jun Japan enacts International Peace Cooperation Act or “PKO Act”
Sep Japan dispatches engineering troops to UN peacekeeping operation in Cambodia
1993 Mar North Korea threatens to withdraw from nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, sparking nuclear crisis
May North Korea test-fires Rodong-1 medium-range ballistic missile into Sea of Japan
1997 Sep Japan and United States amend Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation
1998 Aug North Korea test-fires Taepodong-1 medium-range ballistic missile into Sea of Japan
1999 May Japan enacts Act on Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan

A Baptism in Peacebuilding

In June 1992 Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party–led government secured parliamentary passage of the International Peace Cooperation Act. The enactment of this law, which followed months of intense debate, led to Japan’s first-ever military participation in a UN peacekeeping operation. That occurred in September 1992, when Japan dispatched a Ground Self-Defense Force engineering battalion to participate in the UN peacekeeping operation in Cambodia. Peacekeeping deployments followed in Mozambique, Kenya (to support the relief effort for Rwandan refugees), the Golan Heights, East Timor, and elsewhere.

Framework Revisions

Missile launches and nuclear posturing by North Korea prompted a further broadening of Japan’s latitude for deploying its military capabilities. The North Korean government announced in March 1993 that it had decided to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Although North Korea suspended that decision later, it provoked Japan in the meantime by test-firing a Rodong-1 medium-range ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan in May 1993.

Japan and the United States responded to North Korea’s provocations by revising their Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation in September 1997. The original guidelines, signed in November 1978, provided only for Japan-US military cooperation in defending Japanese territory. With the revision, Japan’s role broadened to include furnishing “rear area support” for US military action in “areas surrounding Japan.”

North Korea’s provocations continued with the August 1998 test-firing of another medium-range ballistic missile, a Taepodong-1, into the Sea of Japan, and Japan continued to fortify its framework of guidelines and legislation for addressing regional contingencies. That included enacting the Act on Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan in May 1999.

The definition of “rear area support” has been the subject of continuing debate in Japan, but the overwhelming weight of opinion is that it limits the Japanese role to providing logistical support. Although the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation continued to preclude a direct combat role for Japan beyond Japanese territory, the 1997 revision, in broadening the geographical scope of Japan-US military cooperation, marked a historic turning point in Japan’s role. The revised guidelines and the Act on Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan carried Japan’s military role definitively beyond its postwar niche, which focused exclusively on homeland security, and into the realm of participating proactively in maintaining regional peace and security.

Japan’s Undefined “Surrounding Areas”

Geographical definitions, such as the “Far East,” have long featured prominently in the continuing debate about Japan’s role in the Japan-US security alliance. The Act on Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan is vague about geography and about other crucial criteria. Left unclear in the text is the geographical extent of the “areas surrounding Japan” in the legislation’s formal name: Act on Measures to Ensure the Peace and Security of Japan in Perilous Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan. And the framers of the legislation blurred its scope further with the phrase “perilous situations.” They apparently intended to equip the Japanese government with expansive latitude for determining the perilousness of the “situations” posited and appropriate responses.

Questions about the definition of “perilous situations” arose anew in parliamentary debate this year. Critics of a set of national security bills submitted by the administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzōjumped on the open-endedness of the phrasing.

Steps in Transforming Japan’s National Security Legislation (2)

2001 Sep Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda conducts four coordinated attacks on US targets
Oct US-led coalition attacks Afghanistan
Oct Japan enacts Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Act
Nov Japan dispatches Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels to Indian Ocean
2003 Mar Iraq War begins
Jun Japan enacts Armed Attack Situation Response Act
Jul Japan enacts Iraq Assistance Special Measures Act
Dec Japanese troop deployments in Iraq get underway

Special Measures for Afghanistan

On September 11, 2001, terrorists infamously launched attacks on US targets with four hijacked airliners. Two of the airliners brought down the North and South towers of New York’s World Trade Center; another struck the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia; and the fourth crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers overcame its hijackers. The UN Security Council concluded that the attacks were the work of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda and that they constituted just cause for exercise of the right of collective self-defense.

Intelligence gathered by the United States indicated that the Taliban government of Afghanistan was providing sanctuary to the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, so the United States orchestrated a multinational offensive against the Taliban. Japan’s then Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirō agreed with the rationale for that offensive, and he secured the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Act in October 2001 to allow for lending support to the offensive. Japan thereupon dispatched replenishment oiler vessels to support the coalition’s naval operations in the Indian Ocean.

Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution renounces “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” And the Indian Ocean is well beyond anything conceivably encompassed by the Japan-US Security Treaty, which refers to contribution to the maintenance of “international peace and security in the Far East.” But the Koizumi government avoided those obstacles by ostensibly eschewing military participation that might involve “the threat or use of force” and by limiting Japan’s participation to noncombat stretches of international waters and airspace and to the territorial waters and airspace of nations that granted transit rights.

Reconstruction Work in Iraq

Japan remained a faithful ally when the United States embarked on another military campaign in March 2003. The US and British governments argued that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, that it had failed to comply with a UN Security Council resolution calling for the elimination of those weapons, and that Iraq’s noncompliance justified military intervention. Nations formally opposed to military action—led by France and Germany—outnumbered those in favor of intervention, but nevertheless the US government cobbled together a 49-nation “coalition of the willing” and went to war against Iraq.

Four of the coalition members—the United States, Australia, Poland, and Britain—deployed troops in the invasion. The other members, including Japan, provided logistical support and other assistance. Not until Saddam Hussein’s government had collapsed and the war was essentially over did Japanese troops set foot on Iraqi soil.

Japan’s National Diet enacted the Iraq Assistance Special Measures Act in July 2003, and the government subsequently deployed personnel from all three Self-Defense Forces to take part in the reconstruction effort. The deployment began with the preliminary dispatch of Air Self-Defense Force personnel in December 2003 and continued with a series of troop dispatches in 2004.

Members of the Ground Self-Defense Force established a base in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah in February 2004. There they engaged in such work as installing water purification equipment and repairing schools and roads. Japan’s presence in Iraq peaked at more than 1,000 troops during the multiyear mission there. The last of the ground troops left in 2006, though the Japanese ASDF cargo planes continued ferrying materiel for the coalition until 2008.

Shiite protesters loyal to the anti-US cleric Moqtada Sadr approach Japanese light armored vehicles in the southern Iraqi city of Ar-Rumaitha [December 4, 2005]. ©Jiji.

Japan enacted the Armed Attack Situation Response Act in June 2003. This law is the cornerstone of Japanese emergency-response legislation. It incorporates legal definitions of “armed attack situations” and “anticipated armed attack situations” and prescribes how the national government, local governments, and the citizenry should cooperate in responding to aggression by another nation or by a terrorist group. The law offers a comprehensive format for protecting the Japanese citizenry in the event of an attack and for countering the attacker.

Chinese Stimuli

Underlying the Abe government’s recent moves to overhaul Japan’s framework of national security legislation is a combination of geopolitics and domestic politics. The Japanese are naturally wary of China’s increasingly assertive military stance and of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program. Abe, meanwhile, has long positioned national security as a central plank in his political platform.

The national security bills that the Abe government submitted to the National Diet this year have been gestating for eight years. Abe’s first cabinet established the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security in April 2007 to develop proposals for beefing up Japan’s national security legislation. Abe, however, had resigned by the time the panel submitted its report in June 2008, and his successor, Fukuda Yasuo, essentially shelved the report.

Japanese concern with national security spiked in September 2010, when a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japan Coast Guard vessel in waters near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China. Japan’s government was then in the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan, which had ousted the LDP-led government in general elections in August 2009. Tensions remained high as Chinese naval and coast guard vessels repeatedly traversed the disputed waters, and Japan’s government scrambled to frame an effective response.

A Cabinet Resolution

Abe reclaimed the government for the LDP with an electoral romp in December 2012, and the second Abe government relaunched the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security in February 2013. The panel submitted a report in May 2014, and the findings of that report furnished the basis for a historic cabinet decision. Abe’s cabinet officially changed its interpretation of the Constitution to countenance the exercise of the right of collective self-defense.

Representatives of the LDP and the Kōmeitō met this February and reached agreement about a proposed package of national security legislation. The cabinet, meeting on May 14, approved the package, which comprised 11 bills. Abe then bundled the bills into two pieces of legislation and submitted them to the National Diet on May 15.

Steps in Transforming Japan’s National Security Legislation (3)

2007 Apr First Abe cabinet establishes Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security
2008 Jun Panel submits report to Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo
2010 Sep Chinese fishing boat collides with Japan Coast Guard vessel near Senkaku Islands
2012 Sep Government of Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko nationalizes Senkaku Islands
Dec Second Abe government takes office
Dec North Korea allegedly displays upgraded ballistic missile capabilities by launching satellite into orbit
2013 Jan Ten Japanese die in terrorist attack in Algeria
Feb Abe government relaunches Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security
Dec Newly established Japan National Security Council holds inaugural meeting
2014 May Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security issues report acknowledging right of collective self-defense
Jul Cabinet adopts resolution that officially changes interpretation of Constitution to acknowledge right of collective self-defense
2015 Jan Unit of Daesh (Islamic State) in Iraq kills two Japanese hostages
Feb Liberal Democratic Party and its ruling coalition partner Kōmeitō reopen discussions on formulating national security legislation
Mar LDP and Kōmeitō reach final agreement on broad outlines for national security legislation
May Cabinet decides on 11 bills for national security legislation and submits them to the National Diet as two pieces of legislation
(Originally written in Japanese by Harano Jōji of Nippon.com and published on June 10, 2015. Banner photo:The Japanese MSDF Mashū replenishment vessel refuels a Pakistani destroyer in the Arabian Sea [January 15, 2010]. ©Jiji.)

United Nations security 9/11 PKO constitution SDF defense