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Japan Spezial Armee Bodenverteidigung Zeremonie Asaka Kaserne Tokio
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T.Kitamura

Enlarged role for Japanese forces

Julian Ryall Tokyo
November 18, 2016

Japanese government has approved new duties for troops about to embark upon peacekeeping operation in South Sudan, but many are opposed to expanding the operations of nation's Self-Defense Forces. Julian Ryall reports.


The Japanese government on Tuesday, November 15, approved a proposal that significantly expands the duties and rules of engagement for Japanese troops taking part in peacekeeping operations, with the revised regulations to be applied to a unit of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) that is scheduled to leave for South Sudan on Sunday, November 20.

The changes are the result of controversial revisions to Japan's security legislation that went into force in March, with Japanese troops now able to come to the assistance of United Nations personnel and other civilians who are under attack.

SDF personnel are now permitted to fire warning shots to make an armed group back off and have approval to fire directly at assailants if they determine themselves to be in life-threatening danger. They will also take part in joint patrols and protection of UN peacekeepers' encamps.

Strict interpretation

Previously, a strict interpretation of the nation's war-renouncing constitution, which was enacted shortly after Japan's defeat in World War II, meant that SDF personnel were effectively limited to protecting themselves in a life-and-death situation and could only stand by if others were the target of violence.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other conservatives in the government have long argued that Japan should be able to play a meaningful role in international peacekeeping operations and be granted the ability to come to the assistance of those in danger. That, in turn, would promote mutual trust and cooperation with other nations that contribute to ensuring stability in some of the world's most dangerous regions, they claim.

Yet the revisions have been controversial at home, with a demonstration outside the prime minster's office on Tuesday attracting hundreds of protestors holding up placards reading "Absolutely no to the Cabinet decision" and "Stop invoking war legislation."

The left-leaning Asahi newspaper said in an editorial that the government's decision to approve "rush and rescue" legislation is based on a "flimsy argument" to get around the conditions for Japan to take part in peacekeeping operations, which in part state that Japanese troops cannot be deployed in a situation in which there is "fighting" between rival groups. The Japanese government has chosen to characterize the violence in South Sudan at present as "clashes," which means the troops can be sent.

"The way the constitution is being interpreted by the government is already quite risky, and there are some who argue that even having Japanese troops in South Sudan is illegal," said Makoto Watanabe, a lecturer in communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University.

Japan Premierminister Shinzo Abe in New York
PM Abe has long argued that Japan should be able to play a meaningful role in international peacekeeping operationsImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa/J. Szenes

Equal with Japan's partners

"But the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and senior officials of the SDF want to show that Japan can be equal to its partners, and especially the United States," Watanabe told DW.

"But I do not agree that relaxing the rules of engagement for Japanese troops is the best way of doing that, and many people in Japan think the same," he said.

"Since 1945, Japan has gone about its diplomatic efforts through pacifist efforts rather than using the military option," he said. "Everyone all over the world knows that Japanese troops go to zones such as South Sudan to rebuild roads, bridges, hospitals and schools. Those who are fighting know SDF troops do not usually carry weapons and that Japanese troops are there to help them.

"Since the government enacted this new legislation earlier this year, I believe that Japanese people have become targets for kidnappings and terrorist attacks," he said, pointing to the killing of seven Japanese volunteer aid workers in Bangladesh in July.

"I believe Japan can play a more effective and efficient role through the provision of overseas development assistance and by working with NGOs in individual countries," he said, adding that there is a serious risk that people in war zones will no longer see Japanese troops as representatives of a nation that has renounced war and is there to help.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, says Abe is "changing the post-war norms and expanding what the Japanese military can do - and ordinary people are very worried that is going to put Japanese troops in harm's way.

"The government looks at places like South Sudan and says something needs to be done," he said. "So now Japanese troops have rules of engagement that are similar to those of other countries, and that is good because the government says it wants to 'normalize' the military here."

Vereinten Nationen in Südsudan
Approximately 14,000 international troops are deployed to the UNMISS mission in war-torn South SudanImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/B. Curtis

Public wary

"The public looks at that a lot more warily because they do not see how Japan's embroilment in fighting in South Sudan has an impact on the security of Japan, which is a requirement of the use of the SDF under the constitution," he pointed out.

The concern, for both the government and the public, will be that the situation in South Sudan worsens significantly and that Japanese troops are caught in the middle of bloodshed that they have not experienced since 1945. And there is a very real possibility of that scenario coming to pass.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, warned Thursday of a "very real risk of mass atrocities being committed in South Sudan, particularly following the sharp rise in hate speech and ethnic incitement in recent weeks."

Approximately 14,000 international troops are deployed to the UNMISS mission in the African country, but were unable to protect civilians during an outbreak of fighting in the capital in July.

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