Sailing for Somalia
Illustration: Phil Couzens

Sailing to Somalia

Two Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) destroyers, the Sazanami, last mentioned on this blog when she paid a visit to China last year, and the Samidare, have departed from Kure naval base in Hiroshima prefecture for a four-month tour patrolling for pirates off the horn of Africa. The destroyers are expected to arrive in theater April 5.

The destroyers were dispatched on the basis of an emergency order by the cabinet, which, as I have mentioned previously, the government can do according to Article 82 of the SDF law. At the same time, however, the cabinet has approved an anti-piracy bill to the Diet to put the mission on surer footing. According to the cabinet resolution on the mission and the accompanying bill, the dispatch is to protect Japanese lives and property and ensure public security and order on the high seas.

In short, the Sazanami and the Samidare leave behind a delicate political situation.

The bill that will go before the Diet explicitly permits the MSDF to defend non-Japanese ships at sea and clarifies measures that can be taken by the MSDF to combat piracy. As of now, the MSDF will be permitted to use force in cases of legitimate self-defense, permitting the destroyers to fire warning shots and shots at the hull of pirate ships encountered.

How will the DPJ respond to the government's bill? Nakagawa Hidenao thinks that DPJ members like Nagashima Akihisa, who strongly approved the mission, will lose out to the DPJ left wing (and the SDPJ and PNP, possible DPJ coalition partners). I think there is reason to doubt Nakagawa's assessment.

First, public opinion is strongly in favor of the dispatch. A recently conducted Cabinet survey on the JSDF and defense affairs found that 63.2% of respondents thought that the JSDF should deal with the piracy problem. (The survey concerns more than just the Somalia mission, but I will comment on it at length in a separate post, once I've read it in its entirety.) Sankei suggests that the defense ministry has concluded that the public is favorable to the mission because they recognize the importance of maritime security for Japan. As Prime Minister Aso said in his statement on the cabinet resolution, "Japan is surrounded by ocean, and, moreover, the importance of foreign trade is high because it is dependent on imports for most major resources. The security of ships at sea is extremely important for the Japanese economic system and way-of-life."

Aso's statement mentions a number of other reasons why Japan is contributing ships to the multinational coalition — Japan's responsibilities as a member of the international community, the fact that the multinational coalition is acting under a UN Security Council resolution, and the participation of other major powers, including China, in the coalition — but the thread that runs through it all is the importance of this mission for Japan's national security.

It is for this reason that Ozawa Ichiro and the DPJ will not stand in the way of the cabinet bill. The DPJ will gain little from opposing a mission that the public recognizes is in the national interest, and may even suffer if it is seen as obstructing the government's plans for political reasons. Moreover, if the DPJ opposes the government's legislation, it will show itself to be indifferent to its own principles, which may cost the party public support. As I argued recently, there is a lowest-common-denominator position on foreign and security policy within the DPJ, the product of an agreement between Ozawa and former Socialist Yokomichi Takahiro. One plank of the agreement recognizes the legitimacy of JSDF dispatch provided there is a UN mandate. As Aso noted, Japan is acting in accordance with Resolution 1816. If Ozawa means what he says, he should support this mission.

I suspect the party will question the government, making a show of demanding accountability from the government, and then concede.

What does this dispatch tell us about the state of Japan's national security posture?

Far from being an example of rising Japan, the amount of time Japan took to undertake this mission shows the degree of deliberation with which the government treats every security issue that occurs. Instead of leaping at an opportunity for dispatching forces to participate in a highly visible mission abroad, the government proceeded gingerly.

Indeed, this mission was an easy test for Japan. Participation was overdetermined — participation enables Japan to secure its national interests, and demonstrate its willingness to be an upstanding global citizen and active participant in UN-mandated security missions. It is a high-profile mission in terms of the global media coverage of piracy, meaning that Japan would bear reputational costs for not participating. China was quick to participate, putting pressure on Japan to act lest it appear to be yielding a leadership position to its Asian rival. And the mission is wholly unrelated to the US-Japan alliance, which otherwise complicates Japan's security decision making.

If anything, the fact that it took so long for Japan to commit despite these factors militating in favor of dispatch suggests that Japan is still a long way from being "normal." And I wonder whether it will ever get there. Despite considerable public support for the mission, the Japanese public is still, according to the defense ministry, more moved by the "national interest" dimension than any other component. Given that Japan's national interest in many cases justifies inaction, missions like this one may continue to be the exception rather than the norm for Japanese security policy.

The Japanese people is clearly more open to such missions than before, but the question is no longer about the distance from where Japan used to be, but the destination where Japanese security policy is heading. Regarding this question, this mission tells us little other than that the Japanese people are sensitive to Japan's national security, even as far afield as Africa, but we don't know exactly how sensitive they are, especially closer to Japanese shores, in thornier cases than fighting pirates.

Originally posted on

Tobias Harris is a Ph.D. student in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is the author of Observing Japan, a blog focused on Japanese politics and East Asian international relations.

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