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A Quarter-Century of Developments in National Security Legislation
How Japan moved toward asserting the right of collective self-defense

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
  • [2015.07.07]
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