Japan Must Be Ready to Use Right of Collective Defense

February 26th, 2001

Japan Must Be Ready to Use Right of Collective Defense


A firm decision that Japan is prepared to exercise the right to collective defense is long overdue.

If an enemy ship attacked a Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel taking part in joint maneuvers with a U.S. warship in the Sea of Japan, the U.S. warship would immediately come to the rescue and help repel the enemy.

What would happen if the U.S. warship was attacked first? Under the prevailing situation, the MSDF vessel would be a mere bystander, because the action of defending an ally’s ship before a Japanese vessel is attacked would constitute the exercising of the right to collective defense, which, according to the government’s conventional interpretation, runs counter to the Constitution.

Such an absurd argument has remained unchallenged simply because Japan has yet to face such a contingency. Should such a situation arise, the Japanese government would certainly be subjected to fierce criticism from the American public and Congress as an ally unworthy of the United States. Demands would mount in the United States that the alliance between the two countries be abrogated.

The Japanese government would then panic, inevitably leading to a change in the conventional way of interpreting the Constitution. A package of bills in line with revised Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines became law in 1999. The legislation itself was undoubtedly epoch-making. It served as a clear-cut message both at home and abroad that the Japan-U.S. alliance was the pivot of Japan’s national defense strategy. The legislation was actually enacted in defiance of strong assertions from both within and outside Japan that any attempt to beef up the bilateral alliance was outdated on the grounds that the Cold War had ended.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that those engaged in the task of formulating the new framework of the Japan-U.S. defense arrangements emphasized that a number of intractable problems would arise in implementing the arrangements if a military emergency involving Japan occurred.

These problems would undoubtedly stem from the current prohibition on the part of the Japanese government to exercise the right to collective defense. On top of this, a couple of potentially baffling problems recently emerged concerning future specific operations in joint Japan-U.S. defense cooperation activities.

One of the problems involves the exchange of intelligence between Japan and the United States, as pointed out, for instance, by Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state-designate in the George W. Bush administration, in a report issued in autumn by the U.S. National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS).

What Armitage has come up with is a proposal that Japan-U.S. cooperation in the exchange of intelligence be upgraded to a level comparable to that between the United States and member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Behind the proposal is the reasoning that Japan, and other countries, need to enhance their information capabilities, since national security threats, both actual and potential, have become more diverse and complex since the end of the Cold War.

Principle of no direct help

A question closely related to this is the concept of “activities directly linked with the use of armed force.” This concept argues that Japan is prohibited under the Constitution not only from using its armed forces in exercising the right to collective defense, but also from engaging in activities that could be directly connected with the use of force.

To visualize what is actually meant by this concept, imagine a scene in a western movie. Accompanied by a Japanese friend, an American gunslinger heads for the scene of a shootout. Upon arrival, the gunslinger shoots several bad guys. Then the Japanese sees someone on the roof of a building taking aim with his gun and shouts a warning to the American: “Look out! Another guy is on the roof behind you!” In a flash, the American spins round and picks off the man on the roof.

In such a scenario, the act of the Japanese offering that kind of information to his friend, which is directly linked to the use of armed force, could be construed as exercising the right to collective defense.

In Diet interpellations, the government has taken the position that this country can provide the United States with information “as long as it is not construed as a kind of instruction for the use of armed force.”

In the reality of a military conflict, however, there is virtually no time to spend pondering such a distinction. Furthermore, even in the event of the American in the western movie analogy running out of ammunition, the Japanese would not be allowed to hand over his own weapon.

Once the shootout has begun, even the act of the Japanese giving a glass of water to the American because he is thirsty could be “directly linked with the use of armed force” and therefore in violation of the Constitution.

In terms of criminal law, such a situation may be considered similar to “aiding and abetting.” Abetting, however, usually means extending a helping hand in an unlawful act.

What the Japanese wants to do in the western film analogy is just the opposite. He wants to protect interests common to both himself and his friend by accompanying the American to the scene of shootout and by providing him with such things as a horse and food. It would only be natural for the Japanese to be baffled for being criticized for his actions.

Problem of missile defense

Another potential stumbling block concerning cooperation is raised by the issue of missile defense–an issue that is certain to top the list of U.S. national defense policies.

The U.S. government-envisioned national missile defense plan has received a mixed response, with negative reactions coming from many European countries, as well as within the United States, while Japan responded most favorably.

Japan has reacted positively mainly because this country has much in common with the United States relevant to this issue, as it is within range of missiles deployed by North Korea and China. As far as the U.S. national missile defense issue is concerned, the mutual trust between Japan and the United States can be described as firm.

A problem, however, is that a missile fired by North Korea at a U.S. target, say Hawaii or Guam, would fly over the Japanese archipelago. Should the missile enter this country’s airspace, Japan could shoot it down on the basis of the right to individual self-defense, as the missile could be regarded as violating Japan’s airspace.

However, the trajectory of a ballistic missile, irrespective of whether it is targeted at Japan or the United States, would take that missile into outer space, which is outside Japan’s airspace. Should a Taepodong missile be aimed at U.S. territory, Japan’s action of shooting it down would undoubtedly fall within the category of the exercising the right to collective defense.

However, whether a Taepodong is targeted at Japan or the United States cannot be determined until the missile’s third-stage rocket engine ignites. A missile fired at Japan would start its descent by the time it was determined that it had not been aimed at the United States.

Antimissile operations must be carried out in a matter of minutes. Establishment of a Japan-U.S. missile defense framework, therefore, must be preceded by intensive bilateral consultations and certain prearrangements.

Under these prearrangements, Washington would take it for granted that Japan would shoot down all missiles, regardless of whether they were targeted at Japan or the United States.

If Japan refused to do this, the Japanese government would have to turn down U.S. requests for Japan’s cooperation on missile defense. Given the current Japan-U.S. cooperative relationship, however, the Japanese government could not afford to refuse such requests.

Suggested remedies

What I have stated up to this point regarding the Taepodong problem is, in a sense, no more than an intellectual pursuit for those interested in logic. This argument ultimately falls short of touching upon what is truly significant.

Getting down to fundamentals, what would a person think about the following types of behavior?

— Failing to inform a friend that an adversary is aiming a gun at him or her, and then watching the friend get killed.

— Turning down a friend’s request for water to alleviate his or her thirst.

— Letting a missile pass over Japan unhindered once it has been ascertained that it is targeted at the United States, allowing Hawaii or Guam to be struck by biological or chemical weapons.

It stands to reason that such behavior toward a friend is nothing short of disgraceful.

What would ordinary Americans think if they knew of Japan’s viewpoint on this issue? It does not take a rocket scientist to answer this.

As long as this problem is left unresolved, the Japan-U.S. alliance will continue to rest on extremely thin ice that could crack at any time.

What should be done to overcome this situation?

At a symposium held on Jan. 14 at Hakuhodo Inc.’s Okazaki Institute and chaired by this writer, participants from Japan and the United States were unanimous in stressing the need for Japan to be able to exercise the right to collective defense. This fact alone deserves special mention.

As was pointed out in the editorial of the New Year’s Day issue of The Yomiuri Shimbun, it now can be said that a consensus has emerged among a wide range of diplomatic experts both in Japan and the United States that Japan should exercise this right.

In addition to this, the symposium participants came up with a number of specific proposals on ways to solve the problem.

One of the scholars from the United States pointed out that although the issue involving the exercise of the right to collective defense has a history of about 40 years, the theory of “activities directly linked to the exercise of armed force” came up as a serious issue about a decade ago.

He went on to say that the problem could be solved only if the Japanese government has the courage to retract this concept, which was mentioned originally in reply to a question posed during Diet interpellations.

If the government does so, it will become possible, as in the western film analogy, to provide the American friend with information, a gun and water, even if it is still impossible for the Japanese to fire his own gun in defense of the American.

It is obvious that the current notion of activities directly linked to the exercise of armed force did not spring from a high level of political judgment.

The notion is nothing more than a bureaucratic concept that a supposed judicial expert happened to hit upon. The idea was later parroted by a politician who was too incompetent to grasp what it actually meant as he read out a prepared answer written by that bureaucrat. The problem can be solved with ease if a government leader takes the trouble of questioning the validity of the concept.

Meanwhile, one of the Japanese scholars at the symposium noted that the issue of the right to collective defense was initially used in the context of an argument concerning ways of placing constraints on dispatching Self-Defense Force personnel overseas. In other words, curbing the SDF’s armed capabilities in foreign territories.

The current argument, however, has veered away from its initial focus, making the issue far too wide-ranging, he said. He was right in pointing out that if this stretched interpretation of the concept can be discarded, it will then become possible for Japan to defend an ally’s vessels on the high seas near Japan from an enemy attack and shoot down a missile targeted at the United States outside this country’s airspace. Such actions can surely be deemed as outside the range of activities prohibited in connection with the exercise of the right to collective defense.

Such changes in interpretation, if put into effect, would be sufficient to solve 90 percent of the problems pending between Japan and the United States, so the two countries should put this on the agenda of bilateral talks.

Scrap idea of unusable right

However, care should be taken regarding the process of changing such interpretations. No new taboo about security affairs should be considered.

This problem is not the only issue on my mind. A far graver state of affairs exists.

Suppose another Korean War occurred in which U.S. forces were driven down to Pusan and were on the verge of being thrown into the sea.

Also suppose that both U.S. and South Korean forces asked Japan for help. If Japan refused to fly any of its 200 F-15 fighters through South Korean airspace, did not send a single minesweeper to extend a helping hand to the U.S. forces besieged by mines laid in South Korean territorial waters, and stood by watching while U.S. servicemen died, how could the Japan-U.S. alliance survive?

Admittedly, this scenario is extremely unlikely, given the dilapidated state of North Korea’s economy and military.

Nevertheless, a nation’s judicial framework must be equipped with provisions that can cope effectively with every possible contingency. In addition, it is extremely difficult to predict how international relations will change in the future–say within the next 50 years. My remedy for this problem continues to remain unchanged. There can be no doubt that Japan has the right to collective defense.

All the Peace Treaty, the Security Treaty and the U.N. Charter that Japan has concluded in strict compliance with procedures stipulated by the Constitution have acknowledged that this country does have this right. And the Constitution solemnly declares the respect to Treaties.

All confusion relating to this issue can be resolved if the government merely stops repeating its conventional statement in Diet interpellations that Japan has the right to collective defense but cannot be allowed to exercise it. This kind of response is abhorrent to a person with only a slight knowledge of legal principles.

In the spirit of the law, the only reply the government should make is as follows:

“Japan has the right to collective security. However, in light of the pacifist principles as stipulated by the Constitution of Japan, we should act with the utmost prudence in exercising the right.”