Japan announced plans to deploy members from the maritime division of its Self-Defense Force (SDF) to help fight piracy off of the coast of Somalia.
Japan’s pacifist constitution prohibits waging war and provides the SDF with a strictly defensive mandate. When the country sent ground SDF forces to Iraq in 2004, the decision was met with fierce debate.
Deployment in Somalia would be considered a “police action,” and Japan is expected to focus primarily on protecting Japanese-owned ships or ships carrying Japanese cargo or crew.
Tobias Harris is a graduate student in political science at MIT who worked for a member of the Democratic Party of Japan in the national legislature for two years. He writes at “Observing Japan” to argue that Japan should acknowledge its wider responsibilities to the international community.
Japan Looks Homeward
This mission should have nothing to do with collective self-defense and everything to do with Japan’s responsibilities to the international community. If Japan’s politicians are reluctant to fulfill those responsibilities, then the question is not to pin blame to one party or another but to pull back the curtain on Japanese foreign policy and ask why the Japanese people are so reluctant to approve any mission abroad by the JSDF [Japan Self-Defense Forces].
In recent years, it appears that foreign policy has become a luxury for the Japanese people. Of course, given the difficulty of getting Japan to contribute more internationally in the best of times, is it fair to expect a substantial shift in Japan during the worst of times?
Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown that a tiny portion of the public thinks foreign policy is an important priority for the government. Polls show that a plurality favors some contribution to the multinational coalition in Somalia, but on the whole foreign policy achievements promise few gains and much risk for Japanese politicians. The Japanese people are, for the time being, interested in cultivating their own garden. Japan’s institutions are broken, the economy is tanking, and the Japanese people are rightly concerned with whether their futures are secure. Arguably ensuring access to energy is essential to the country’s economic future, but no leader has explained why events in the Horn of Africa (for example) are intimately connected with Japan’s prosperity.
No Japanese leader has gone before the Japanese people and said that Japan has been free riding throughout the postwar period, and that it is time to change. The Japanese people, it seems, would rather be Switzerland, at least for the time being, while their elected representatives are torn between the demands of their tired constituents and the demands emanating from foreign capitals, in the case of some the demands from their friends abroad.
The Japanese people have little interest in being a normal nation, at least for now. They want their abductees accounted for, they want their pensions paid, and they want to know that they will have access to quality medical care as they age. This may not be what Washington wants to hear, but for the time being it is what Washington will get. For now Japan is not a global great power, nor was meant to be.
Sooner or later Japan will resolve its foreign policy identity crisis.
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For more on Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and their strictly defensive mandate, see PBS Wide Angle’s documentary “Japan’s About Face.”