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Why has Japan slashed its overseas defense forces?

Julian Ryall Tokyo
July 5, 2022

Thousands of Japanese armed forces personal previously traveled around the world to help the UN out in some of the most tense hotspots. But priorities at home have shifted.

Japan GSDF in S. Sudan takes up controversial new roles
South Sudan was one of the last places that saw a major Japanese Self-Defense Forces deploymentImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

In years gone by, thousands of police, civilian election observers and members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces have served around the world under the flag of the United Nations. These days, Japan only permits six officials to serve with the UN, and all are in command facilities rather than in front-line roles. 

Analysts suggest that politicians in Tokyo have become increasingly averse to the growing risks associated with taking part in operations abroad as conflicts become more volatile. Additionally, there is a pressing need to keep troops closer to home as tensions in Northeast Asia rise.

Taking a step back means that Japan plays less of a role in maintaining international peace — the opposite intention of the International Peace Cooperation Law in June 1992 that created a framework to send personnel overseas. 

The Self-Defense Forces' last big mission

Since this legislation was passed, Japanese personnel have made sure elections went smoothly, rescued survivors of natural disasters and carried out airlifts, and rebuilt schools, hospitals and bridges around the world.

The last large-scale deployment of the Self-Defense Forces was in South Sudan, with a 350-strong military contingent based in Juba from 2012. But this ended abruptly in May 2017 due to the worsening threat of violence. 

"The mission for the Japanese was to carry out engineering work to help the local population and they were working alongside some very capable other foreign units, from France, Britain and China," said Garren Mulloy, a professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University. 

"But then fighting broke out in Juba and a combination of the Ministry of Defense, the head of the SDF and then-defense minister [Tomomi] Inada covered up the fact the units were in the vicinity of armed conflict," he told DW.

Under the terms of the 1992 legislation, Japanese peacekeeper units are only permitted to operate in areas where ceasefires are in place and the use of weapons "shall be limited to the minimum necessary to protect the lives of personnel." 

Given the strict rules of operation, Tokyo decided to preemptively withdraw its units. When asked about the early departure, bureaucrats and senior military officials fabricated documents and claimed others could not be found, Mulloy said.  

Japanese public opinion has been consistently unsold on the need for troops overseas. When the truth about the deployment eventually emerged, there was widespread criticism of the government at home and abroad. It did not help Tokyo's image with either of its partners, who concluded, Mulloy said, that Japan was, "untrustworthy and incompetent."  

Such an outcome was a long way from Tokyo's original plan, Mulloy said, which was to raise the nation's international profile at a time when the economy was booming and there was widespread anticipation that a newly confident Japan would play a greater role in global security, economic and political issues.  

Pressure on Tokyo 

Two Japanese soldiers were killed while on UN duty, both during the election monitoring mission to Cambodia in 1992. It was the first mission since the 1992 legislation passed and the deaths led to calls for the unit to be withdrawn, including in the National Diet. The government of the day resisted these calls, but this set the tone among future governments who feared that body bags returning to Japan from overseas would deal them a fatal blow.

The fear has grown stronger as the global security situation has deteriorated in recent years, said an analyst with Japan's National Insititute of Defense Studies (NIDS). 

Japanese military

"There has been a clear change in the environment, with peacekeeping operations becoming more diverse, requiring different mission capabilities and becoming much more risky," said the official, who declined to be named as he is not authorized to speak with the media. 

"This has made it far harder for governments to commit troops to places where there is a higher likelihood of fighting breaking out," the official explained, adding that Japan was also unable to fly the flag in places that it has done in the past.

Instead, successive Japanese governments had what the NIDS official termed a "shift in focus," providing more military training for developing nations and sophisticated technology to assist their forces.

Other motivating factors 

There were additional motivating factors, the official told DW. "Japanese governments have asked themselves what are the advantages of sending the SDF to places in Africa or the Middle East," he said. "Of course, they get some boots-on-the-ground experience, but Japan must now focus on advanced technologies to ensure its own defense, and that is not something that is learned on a peacekeeping mission. 

"And in recent years, the security environment surrounding Japan has also deteriorated," he said. "With the challenges posed by China and North Korea and, most recently, Russia, it makes sense for Japan to deploy its forces closer to home and to have them train in the areas that they will need to operate in if a conflict breaks out."

"It is unfortunate for places that need peacekeepers, but Japan needs to send a message of deterrence first and foremost." 

Edited by: Kate Martyr