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The SDF and the Diet Debate

Jul. 14, 2015

Today, we return to the issue dominating headlines in Japan this week -- the national security bills. As the debate reaches a critical point, we’ll look at the people at the center of the discussions -- the members of the Self-Defense Forces.

NHK World’s Yoichiro Tateiwa looks at the history of the forces and asks key figures, past and present, how SDF personnel view the proposals.

The Self-Defense Forces were created in 1954, 9 years after the end of World War 2. Japan’s post-war constitution renounced war and the use of force to settle international disputes. So the Japanese government says the SDF is not a military force, but the minimum requirement for self-defense.

But its capabilities have expanded over the years and it now has state-of-the-art equipment for combat on the ground, sea and air. The scope of activities has widened too. The forces now take part in overseas peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.

Before creating the SDF, Japan’s leaders founded the National Defense Academy, a training institute for future officers. Cadets spend 4 years there before being assigned to the Ground, Maritime, or Air Self Defense Forces.

What does the current generation of cadets think about expanding the SDF’s role? The Academy’s top instructor says they’re ready to handle any changes.

"The Academy is trying to prepare cadets not only to deal with present situations but any future changes as well. So we won’t necessarily have to make any dramatic changes if they alter the role of the forces," says Col. Rio Hashimoto, an NDA Head Guidance Officer.

Tateiwa asked a former general who helped shape the Self Defense Forces about the current debate. Sachio Genkawa was part of the first generation of cadets at the academy. He helped to guide the partnership with the US forces. He says the right to collective self-defense is essential, but it should have clear limits.

Genkawa: Until recently, the US forces had an obligation to protect Japan, but Japan had no obligation to protect US forces. The US initially acknowledged that stance. But its military isn’t as dominant as it once was, and the US can hardly play the role of world police, so there’s talk of the right to collective self-defense. If Japan can stand on an equal footing in the alliance with the US, the security treaty will have more credibility.

Tateiwa: You’re saying you support the right to collective self-defense, but it should be limited to only protecting Japan?

Genkawa: That’s exactly it. I’ve been in a position to oversee joint operations between Japan and the US. The plans to defend Japan cover 2 things -- directly defending the country, and dealing with any situation posing a serious threat to Japan. I think the maximum the SDF can do is defend sea lanes and maintain maritime order in the Asia Pacific region.

Tateiwa: What do you think of the idea that the revised law would enable the SDF to protect and rescue Japanese nationals abroad?

Genkawa: I think it’s not appropriate to discuss that within the framework of security legislation. There is an international rule for what to do when foreign nationals are affected by conflicts in other countries. It is a key principle that we should deal with such circumstances in accordance with international rules. Contact is to be made via the Foreign Ministry to secure the safety of people caught up in a conflict abroad. It’s not an issue of security legislation. I think rescuing Japanese nationals abroad is an important operation, but national security legislation is for the security and safety of a country. We have to do our utmost to rescue Japanese nationals, but it has to be done in accordance with the international rules.

Tateiwa joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio to further discuss the issue.

Shibuya: We heard in the report about Mr. Genkawa’s reservations about the scope of SDF missions. So what do you think is his biggest concern?

Tateiwa: What struck me most was his emphasis on having to win the public’s trust. He made the point over and over again. There was a time when people questioned whether or not the forces were constitutional. He and other officers helped win people’s trust, and I can say it wasn’t that easy, and he doesn’t want to see that eroded. Mr. Genkawa said that when he and other cadets joined the SDF, they pledged not to let it become like the old Japanese military. He says the Japanese Imperial military served the Emperor, but the SDF exists to protect the people of Japan and democracy. He says he and other officials always think about how they’ll be perceived by the Japanese people whenever they conduct operations.

Genkawa: The role of the SDF is to deter war and maintain peace, and to do that it needs to show more than just strength. It also needs to be honest, humble and kind to people. That’s what we have been doing. Otherwise the nation won’t trust the SDF. Having the people’s trust is an essential part of defending this country.

Beppu: About the security legislation, we know that politicians in the Diet are at odds over whether the discussions are enough or not. What was Mr. Genkawa telling you about this?

Tateiwa: He says there should be more debate on what role the forces should play, and should not play, and how they can defend the country. He says he’s concerned that the current discussions in the Diet are too vague and shallow.

Beppu: Apparently, he’s not alone. We have our poll results here. The majority of people responded that they think the discussions in the Diet are not enough, and 8% are saying that it is.

Tateiwa: Right, and that’s Mr. Genkawa’s point. He thinks there have not been enough fundamental discussions on the SDF’s role, and he says it’s essential that lawmakers discuss it in much more detail.