In this interview, former GSDF Lieutenant General and National Defense Academy Professor Noboru Yamaguchi offers firsthand insights into how Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution is viewed by members of the Self-Defense Forces and how it has circumscribed the SDF’s activities. He also offers his thoughts on Prime Minister Abe’s proposed amendment, noting that a revision would be meaningful in enhancing the Japanese public’s sense of ownership of its own Constitution. Interviewed by Hirotaka Kojo of Asahi Shimbun. Photo by Takahiro Yoshinaga.

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——Article 9, which renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and declares, in the second paragraph, that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” has long been a touchy issue. The amendment proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls for keeping paragraph 2 but adding the country’s right to establish the Self-Defense Forces. Do you support this plan, or are you against it?

NOBORU YAMAGUCHI: I’m in favor of an amendment, primarily because the Constitution has never been revised before. It was drafted a year after Japan’s surrender in World War II, while the country was still under Allied Occupation, so I think many people feel that it was thrust on them, that it doesn’t really reflect their will. I personally happen to like the current Constitution, but if it were to be amended—doesn’t really matter where—I think people’s sense of ownership would be significantly enhanced.

——In what ways do you “like the current Constitution”?

YAMAGUCHI: I’m particularly fond of the phrase in the latter half of the Preamble that reads: “We desire to occupy an honored place in an international society striving for the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance for all time from the earth.” Fulfilling this pledge will require us, more than ever, to advance what the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe call “proactive contributions to international peace.”

The Importance of Winning Trust

——The Self-Defense Forces were launched in 1954, when pacifist sentiments were still very strong in the country. In addressing the newly created troops, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida stated that the less conspicuous they were, the happier Japan and the Japanese people would be. Opponents criticized the forces as “tax thieves.” Compared to the time you entered the SDF, how has its place in society and the public’s perceptions of its constitutionality evolved today?

YAMAGUCHI: I joined the SDF in 1974, when the Japan Socialist Party was still the second-largest party in the Diet and continued to insist that the forces were unconstitutional. My father had served proudly in the SDF, and having become a member myself, I never once thought of the forces as being “tax thieves.” But there have been people who’ve called me a “thief,” “parasite,” and the like.

——To your face?

YAMAGUCHI: While I was a student at the Defense Academy, a drunkard once threw boiled egg shells at me when I was waiting for a bus at night, saying that I was a tax parasite. I was only nineteen or twenty at the time, so I was teed off, but looking back on it now I realize it’s probably the mission of the SDF to keep the country safe enough so people can freely speak their minds.

——What did the Defense Academy teach you about the Constitution? Were you taught to safeguard the lives of people, including those who criticize you?

YAMAGUCHI: A course on the Constitution was compulsory, and I learned then about the many different arguments that have been advanced on ways to interpret it. After joining the SDF, I received instruction on the Constitution at each stage of my career development. These courses were always accompanied by an examination of the legal bases of the SDF’s activities, so members of the SDF have a solid grounding in constitutional and legal issues.

——This may have been before you joined, but there was a time when the catchphrase for the SDF was Aisareru Jietai [The SDF, Loved by All].

YAMAGUCHI: It fell out of use around the time I joined. The chairman of the Joint Staff Council and the chiefs of staff of the ground, sea, and air forces were all former members of the Imperial armed forces, and they were the ones believed that the SDF needed to put on a friendlier, more congenial face. It wasn’t until many years later that they were succeeded by the postwar graduates of the Defense Academy. One prominent figure who took issue with this slogan was Hiroomi Kurisu, who became chairman of the Joint Staff Council in 1977. Even though he served in the Imperial Navy, he wasn’t a graduate of the prewar military academy, having graduated from Tokyo Imperial University. He argued that it was more important for the SDF to win people’s trust, rather than their affection.

Can Japan Make a Preemptive Strike?

Can Japan Make a Preemptive Strike?

——Would you concur that the biggest constraint the Constitution places on Japan’s military arsenal is that it must be exclusively defensive in nature?

YAMAGUCHI: Well, that’s not all, actually. It also implies that Japan can possess only the minimum military capacity necessary for its self-defense. Article 9, for instance, explicitly states that Japan will refrain from using force as means of settling international disputes. The language of this article draws heavily from the Kellogg–Briand Pact of 1928, which called for the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy. Only a handful of countries, including Japan and Italy, though, have incorporated such a provision into their constitutions. The “right of belligerency” in the second paragraph of Article 9 refers to the right of a country to occupy or rule an enemy state or to seize the ships of its trading partners. Since Japan merely claims a right to self-defense, though, there’s basically no need to renounce its right of belligerency.

The Constitution does more than simply stipulate an exclusively defense-oriented policy.
There are certain prohibitions that are clearly stated, and others that are merely suggested. Even as early as the mid-1950s, there was talk of being able to attack enemy bases when this was deemed unavoidable. An example would be when a missile targeting Japan was about to be launched, and there was no other way of preventing a strike short of destroying the launch pad. Government officials have explained that the Constitution does not force us to sit on our hands and wait for our deaths if a missile is headed in our direction. There are no legal constraints on taking preventive action. But there are nonetheless great hurdles to making a first strike. We’re bound by a vaguely defined notion that Japan must suffer an attack before it can militarily respond, even though Article 9 doesn’t explicitly prohibit an attack against an aggressor’s bases to eliminate imminent threatse.

Neither does it rule out a system of conscription, even though that’s inferred from the fact that we’re not supposed to have a large military. The same goes for not possessing attack aircraft carriers or intercontinental ballistic missiles. These self-imposed restrictions are an extension of a policy emanating from the Constitution, since such equipment is deemed incongruous with the notion of maintaining only the minimum necessary self-defense capability.

The Three Non-Nuclear Principles are regarded as being almost as sacrosanct as the Constitution, but from a legal perspective, Japan is not barred from possessing nuclear weapons if they’re purely defensive in nature. Foreign commentators often assume that Article 9 bans nuclear weapons, and I always tell them that this isn’t so. We’ve resolved not to own any simply as a matter of national policy.

Almost all wars today are fought as an exercise of the right of self-defense, and they usually involve launching an attack on an enemy state before it can attack you. But if you’re adhering to an exclusively defense-oriented policy, this is something you wouldn’t do—at least if you’re abiding by the spirit of the Constitution.

But there are number of inherent contradictions in our defense and security policy. We claim to pursue an exclusively defensive policy and yet assert our right to strike an enemy target if an attack is imminent. We also adhere to the Three Non-Nuclear Principles but our national security is premised on the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States. So Japan’s defense-only posture hasn’t been as constricting as one might imagine.

After all, the question of whether an action is defensive or offensive in nature is a matter of how a weapon is used. Even a pistol can be used in a highly aggressive way. A defense-oriented policy means using your arsenal in ways that are purely defensive.

——You were a commanding officer during your SDF years. Did you ever feel that Article 9 restricted your freedom or that it forced you to expose your troops unnecessarily to danger?

YAMAGUCHI: No, I don’t think such a situation ever came up because of Article 9 per se. Normally, kaigai-hahei (dispatching troops abroad) means deploying a group of soldiers with a mission requiring the use of force. But there were times in the past when sending an officer abroad to a diplomatic mission as a defense attaché or on a business trip would be criticized as troop deployment. We’ve done what we can to correct such misguided views over the years, so I’ve never personally felt any restrictions to my freedom.

In discussing the issue of constitutional constraints, we don’t start by examining what we can and cannot do; we first identify our goals and then consider the policies needed to achieve them within our legal framework. The main mission of the SDF, as outlined in Article 3 of the Self-Defense Forces Act, is to defend Japan with the means, people, and equipment with which we’re provided. We’re also called on to maintain public order, as needed; this includes disaster relief, public security, maritime patrol, and countermeasures against violations of territorial airspace. We first identify what we need to do, and then consider whether they’re feasible under the Constitution.

The stance of the Abe administration is basically in line with earlier administrations. Very little has changed. The only areas where Japan now claims its right to collective self-defense are those that are closely aligned with the right to individual self-defense. And the SDF’s proactive contributions to international peace will continue to be made within the existing constitutional framework.

Expanding Scope of the SDF’s Activities

——One of the fears expressed by those opposed to claiming the right to collective self-defense was becoming embroiled in wars waged by the United States.

YAMAGUCHI: I’m aware of that argument, but when you actually look at what Japan is now capable of doing, you realize that it’s not much more than before. The only time Japan may claim its right to collective self-defense is when where the country’s existence is under threat but has yet to come under direct armed attack.

For example, after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the South Korean and UN forces were forced back to the Pusan Perimeter by mid-September. Reinforcements helped to stave off defeat, but if North Korea had succeeded in penetrating the perimeter, the next to fall might have been the Japanese island of Tsushima. This is the kind of situation to which the Abe administration’s new interpretation of the right to collective self-defense would apply, allowing Japan to defend its territory.

——You worked closely with foreign militaries while you were still active. Did you ever need to explain the constraints the SDF faced because of Article 9?

YAMAGUCHI: Many times. The duties of the SDF were slightly expanded in the early 1990s so that Japan could send troops on UN peacekeeping operations. But Japan was still limited to offering logistic support in peripheral areas, undertaking fueling or hygienic operations. We could also conduct search and rescue in the event that a US jet was shot down. When I explained this to my American counterparts, they looked at me as if to say, “You couldn’t even do that before?” Additional legal revisions in the late 1990s into the early 2000s expanded the scope of the SDF’s activities, and I often had to explain these developments to US forces. To be quite honest, I wished I didn’t have to do it.

On countless occasions, US officers would complain that as soon as talk turned to tactics, the SDF would always bring up legal questions. I think they were frustrated that Japanese law only allowed us to do so much. Mutual understanding, especially with US forces, has deepened quite a bit over the past twenty-five years or so, though and now we’re advancing security cooperation with Australia and Britain as well. In fact, similarly sweeping talks were also held with South Korea in the 1990s, although they were held in the context of Japan-US-ROK trialogue. Nonetheless, these formal talks helped to build channels of communication between Japanese and Korean military officials.

——In what ways were those talks “sweeping”? Did you discuss contingencies on the Korean Peninsula?

YAMAGUCHI: That’s right. We talked about potential roles for the SDF in such a situation. The South Korean people do not want Japanese troops on their soil, period. They consider a Japanese military presence on the peninsula an incursion. It wasn’t easy convincing them that we had no such intentions.

——Coming back to the issue of PKOs, I assume that whereas most normal militaries have a list of certain things they’re not allowed to do, the SDF’s list contains the few things they can do.

YAMAGUCHI: You know, there’s really no such thing as a “normal” military. There’s nothing normal about the US forces, and the North Korean military is anything but normal. The same can be said of China’s People’s Liberation Army. Of course, there are standard categories of activities that UN peacekeepers are normally expected to perform, and the SDF chooses to undertake as much as they are legally capable.

It was only recently, for instance, that Japanese peacekeepers were permitted to come to the aid of other nations’ peacekeeping units or personnel under fire. The first PKO mission on which Japanese troops were dispatched was to Cambodia in 1992. China’s peacekeepers were assigned to an area that was more dangerous, and our two countries’ officers were on good terms. But one day, a trench mortar was hurled into the Chinese camp, resulting in two casualties and a dozen injuries. Japanese troops were further south, which was safer territory, and all members returned home safely. If the Japanese camp had come under fire, and Japan requested China’s help, Chinese troops would have rushed to our aid. But prior to the recent legal revision, Japanese personnel would have been unable to do the same for China had they requested our assistance. If Japan abandoned Chinese or South Korean troops to their fate despite calls for help, just imagine the kind of diplomatic row this would have caused. We might have been criticized for it for another hundred years. So in that sense, I think we’ve come a long way over the past twenty-five years.

Rules of Engagement

YAMAGUCHI: The SDF’s use of weapons during our initial engagement as peacekeepers was severely restricted. They couldn’t be fired at the orders of a commanding officer but only when individual members needed to do so for self-defense, much like a police officer. A commander could order his troops to stop firing but couldn’t tell them to start. Troops that are unable to use their arms are placed in a very dangerous situation. The Constitution doesn’t prohibit the use of firearms per se, since police officers are able to fire their guns in the line of duty or for self-defense. But in the case of the SDF, a decision to open fire becomes a political one. The judgment of the commanding officer must be in line with the position of the national government. For this, we need to establish clearly defined rules of engagement. The actions taken by troops on the ground must ultimately be determined by our political leaders in Tokyo. The responsibility for such decisions is beyond the scope of individual soldiers or officers. These issues had yet to be spelled out in 1992, however, so we were often groping our way forward.

——Are you saying that the dangers peacekeepers face on the ground are due to rules of engagement, rather than constitutional constraints?

YAMAGUCHI: Well, like I said, the Constitution doesn’t prohibit the use of firearms, but it may be the ultimate source of any restrictions. There’s no question that Japanese peacekeepers must operate under far more stringent rules of engagement than other countries, and the hurdles that must be cleared before Japan can invoke its right of self-defense are also much higher

The standard criteria for invoking the right of self-defense are: (1) there is an imminent threat of an armed attack, (2) it is the sole means of safeguarding an essential interest, and (3) the use of force is kept to a minimum within rational bounds. The rationale given by Washington for waging war on Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks was that the country served as the base for the al-Qaeda terrorist network, which could, if neglected, carry out additional attacks. The threat posed by al-Qaeda, in other words, was deemed imminent, required a military response, and could be contained by invading Afghanistan. Japan could never use such a justification to conduct a military operation, of course—and not just because of Article 9. There are many historical factors preventing Japan from taking such action.

The positive legacy of Article 9 is that it enabled Japan to predominantly focus on economic growth under the Yoshida Doctrine, with United States guaranteeing its security. It also forced Japan to embark on a pacifist path, which many Asian countries in the immediate postwar years found reassuring.

Japan registered remarkable growth after the war to become the world’s number two economy. Everyone’s attention is focused on China today, but in the 1960s, Japan’s pace of growth was regarded as an “economic miracle.” The country prospered thanks to peace in the Middle East, enabling it to import oil, and peace in major export markets. During the heyday of the Cold War, the Western bloc welcomed Japan’s ability to thwart Soviet incursions by guarding the Soya, Tsugaru, and Tsushima Straits. Japan’s defense budget was confined to around 1% of GDP, but with the economy growing quickly, we were able to upgrade our forces and contribute to meeting the Soviet threat. We were under considerable pressure to increase our defense spending, but never once was I asked to contribute our forces to multinational operations.

After the end of the Cold War, Japan began to question its limited role in global security and wondered whether it should contribute more directly to the peace on which its economic prosperity relied. It wasn’t enough just to contribute to the budgets of international undertakings; we needed to increase our visible contributions.

A National Debate

A National Debate

——Not everyone agrees that a constitutional amendment is a good idea. Opinion polls show that nine out of ten people already have a favorable view of the SDF. So what’s the need for writing the SDF into the Constitution?

YAMAGUCHI: There are probably many reasons for people’s favorable view of the SDF. But public support doesn’t preclude the need for its inclusion. A constitution stipulates a country’s basic disposition, and I think a national debate on an amendment would make a positive contribution to enhancing a sense of ownership. I, for one, was pained by the many comments I’d hear about the SDF being unconstitutional. I happen to like the Constitution, as I’ve said, but my affection could be more broadly shared, I think, if we initiated a process of amending it.

——Some active SDF officers have commented that they’re not particularly eager to get an amendment, since a revised constitutional interpretation has already opened the door to a limited exercise of the right to collective self-defense.

YAMAGUCHI: That might be true as far as they’re concerned, but I’m not talking about making things easier for a particular section of government. I’m looking at the bigger picture.

——Some senior officers, on the other hand, have said that an amendment would significantly boost the morale and pride of the troops.

YAMAGUCHI: You know, revising the Constitution isn’t going to lead to any practical changes on the ground. The biggest change may be psychological. The cloud hanging over our heads will finally dissipate, as we’ll no longer need to worry about our very existence being unconstitutional. Another big factor is that an amendment will represent the collective will of the people, making it quite different from a government decision to renew its interpretation of the Constitution.

——That very cloud hanging over you, some might say, has the positive effect of instilling discipline in the SDF and confining its activities.

YAMAGUCHI: Don’t you think that such an argument is insane? I mean, how can you expect to create a healthy, disciplined organization while accusing it of being unconstitutional? The SDF is completely under civilian control today. That means that our political leaders are the ones who decide whether or not to use force. If they choose to not to use force, then we’ll abide by that decision. And if they decide that military action is warranted, based on the collective will of the people, then we’ll proceed to carry out their instructions, exactly as given. We’re not going to argue with them. That’s what civilian control is all about.

Japan’s annual defense budget is around 5 trillion yen, which is a lot of money. At one time, we had the world’s second largest defense budget, and we’re probably still among the top five. And yet, there’s very little talk in the Diet about how that money is being spent. Political debate usually gets stuck on questions of constitutionality, and it doesn’t get much deeper than that. I’m not complaining, since the Ministry of Defense and the SDF then get to appropriate the allocations in the ways they see fit. But this is an area where civilian control is rather weak. One way to strengthen it would be for the Diet to openly discuss what equipment the SDF possesses and how it should be used.

Ensuring Legitimacy

——On the other hand, there are people like LDP politician Shigeru Ishiba who want to do away with the second paragraph of Article 9 altogether. Wouldn’t that be simpler?

YAMAGUCHI: I think Ishiba-san has a point, and it’s definitely an option. But I’m not convinced that this would clarify the situation.

This relates to the question of legitimacy of Japan’s right of self-defense. When you compare individual and collective self-defense, the latter actually has more international legitimacy. That’s because a country can invoke its right to individual self-defense simply by claiming to be under attack. But with collective self-defense, you need other, friendly countries to agree with you—or at the very least, one other country. Perhaps the most legitimate use of force is a collective security arrangement, such as a UN force, under which parties rally to contain a belligerent state.

Germany relinquishes the command of its troops when they’re operating as part of an international force, believing that when they fight as part of, say, NATO, it’s more legitimate than when they’re fighting for Germany alone. A UN Security Council resolution requires the votes of at least its five permanent members, and invoking the right to collective self-defense requires an agreement between at least two parties. But a single country can invoke its right to individual self-defense. Such a right must be reported to the United Nations, and the UN may judge that the invocation is not justified.

The current debate on amending the Constitution doesn’t go so far as to consider the roles the SDF may play under a collective security arrangement. If and when Japan chooses to join a UN force, it may need to undertake tasks that are not prescribed by the Constitution. We’ll then have to choose whether to seek a constitutional revision or to confine our participation to a narrow range of activities. We’ll still need to confront such a choice even if the second paragraph is dropped from Article 9.

——There are fears that if the SDF is clearly written into the Constitution, the military and the government would then run out of control.

YAMAGUCHI: Well, if the government ran out of control, this would mean that the people who voted for that government made a mistake. But then again, this is a scenario that could materialize as long as we’re living in a democracy. What’s important is for people to feel that organizations like the SDF are an extension of themselves, that these groups are doing the work on the public’s behalf. Very few people, I would guess, felt personally engaged when the SDF was dispatched to UN peacekeeping operations or on a mission to help rebuild Iraq. But when you think about it, these troops were sent as representatives of Japan by elected officials, so why should people be reluctant to take ownership of these decisions? It would much healthier for Japanese democracy if politicians openly discussed how the troops should or shouldn’t be deployed.

——Like you say, we’re living in a democracy, and people do make mistakes when casting their ballots, as history so lucidly teaches. So the Constitution should serve as a bulwark against administrations or policies that go too far, and this was the thrust of the many restrictions it now contains. If we open the door to constitutional amendments, how can we expect the Constitution to keep administrations in check in cases where voters made the wrong choice?

YAMAGUCHI: I think the media has an important role to play. As things stand, reporting tends to be very lopsided, as when the media began calling the 2015 bills to enable Japan’s limited participation in collective self-defense “war legislation.” If anything, the bills were intended to prevent war, so in that sense, it may not be a misnomer. But it’s nonetheless irresponsible for journalists to put a label on something without really taking the time to examine what the legislation is really intended to do. When I was younger, there were no opportunities at all in the Diet to discuss the mission of the SDF or the kind of equipment it needed to fulfill that role. But things have become more open today, which I think is a very healthy trend, so I hope our politicians will debate these questions more fully.

Translated from “‘Nantonaku’ ga shibatte kita Jieitai: Kenpo o kokumin no mono ni suru tame ni,” Jounalism, February 2019. (Courtesy of Asahi Shimbun Publications)