The great struggle in Japanese national security policy since World War II has been over the legitimacy of its armed forces. For more than half a century, constitutional restrictions on the deployment of the military have led to the world's second-largest democratic economy playing a far smaller global role than its peers. Efforts to change that have always faced implacable resistance from a Japanese public scarred by the war and suspicious of any hint of militarism.
Now the heroic and indispensable actions of Self-Defense Forces (Japan's military) in the wake of the March 11 earthquake may have changed Japan's relations with its military forever. A new acceptance of the SDF by Japan's public may emerge from this tragedy, thereby changing how Tokyo chooses to normalize the role of the military in protecting Japan's interests abroad.
Article 9 of the American-written 1947 constitution sought to preclude Japan from ever again waging an aggressive war. After stating that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation," the article asserts that "land, sea, and air forces . . . will never be maintained." Nonetheless, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces were reconstituted rapidly after the establishment of the National Police Reserve in 1950. Today, Japan's quarter-million-man armed forces have an annual budget of $40 billion and maintain one of the world's most modern militaries.
The Japanese public has long felt a deep ambivalence about the SDF. This stems from the lack of a national discussion on the atrocities committed by Imperial Japanese troops during World War II, and from the constitutional limits on employing the military beyond the country's shores. Those on the right wing of the political spectrum consider this a national disgrace; those on the left believe military and political leaders can never be let out of their cage for fear that they will embark on new aggressions. Both major political parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, prefer to ignore the issue.
Yet attitudes toward the military have been changing, as demonstrated by politicians' greater willingness to deploy forces abroad. In 1991, Tokyo's failure to send any troops to the U.S.-led campaign against Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait led to international ridicule and condemnation of Japan's "checkbook diplomacy" that seeks to substitute aid for military intervention. In 2001, by contrast, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi quickly supported George W. Bush's actions in Afghanistan.
Japanese ground and air units contributed to stabilization activities in Afghanistan, while the Maritime Self Defense Forces conducted an eight-year refueling mission for allied naval vessels in the Indian Ocean. For more than two years, naval vessels have been conducting anti-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa, and Japan will soon build its first overseas naval base since 1945, in Djibouti. Some of these have been controversial—the DPJ made ending the refueling mission an electoral plank in 2009—but the trend is clear.
More recently, Prime Minister Naoto Kan released new National Defense Program Guidelines. The document recognizes the shift in Japan's security activities toward its far-flung southwestern islands. Compared to 10 years ago, recruiting posters for the SDF are more noticeable and there is little doubt that today's generation of SDF officers have grown more confident thanks to their experiences of the past decade.
These new attitudes may be due in part to the growth of the Chinese military, and its more assertive behavior in the East China Sea. News reports of Chinese helicopters flying close to Japanese naval vessels last year raised concerns that China was probing Japan's responses and its will to respond. Last October's flare up over a Chinese fishing boat stopped by the Japanese Coast Guard in waters off the Senkaku Islands, while not involving the Chinese military directly, further stoked fears that China was increasingly confident and willing to provoke a crisis.
Despite all this, until last month, it seemed that Japan's military was still largely only tolerated in society, while people remained uncomfortable thinking about traditional hard power concerns. Last month's natural disaster may tip this scale of public opinion.
Within hours of the devastating earthquake and tsunami, Japan's Self-Defense Forces had mobilized to carry out disaster relief and rescue missions. All told, more than 100,000 troops were deployed to the ravaged northeastern coast. That represented 40% of Japan's total military. Newspapers and television screens were filled with images of soldiers bringing supplies, clearing debris, and carrying victims young and old to safety.
The SDF worked seamlessly, it appeared, with its American allies. Thousands of U.S. troops also swung into action, ferrying thousands of tons of supplies by helicopter from the USS Ronald Reagan and by U.S. Air Force transport planes. SDF soldiers and U.S. Marines worked side by side on the ground to provide aid and relief.
As a result, perhaps for the first time since the war, the Japanese public has come to accept the importance of the SDF as a part of Japan's democratic society. This is very different from the support for the Imperial Army's wars of aggression against China in 1894 or Russia in 1904. This is support for a civilian-led, volunteer force that acts as a responsible part of a democratic order at home, in concert with other democratic powers abroad.
Perhaps this will lead Japan's political leaders to reconsider their aversion to letting the military take a greater role in other missions. America and many nations in Asia have long wanted Japan to shoulder more responsibility for maintaining regional stability. The SDF's sterling response to the March earthquake has shown the public that Japan has a professional, responsible military. Now the country's leaders need to be willing to deploy that force abroad in a professional, responsible manner.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.