Time to Pop the Cork: Three Scenarios to Refine Japanese Use of Force

Kiyoshi Sugawa


Talk of constitutional revision-especially related to the well-known article 9 which constrains Japanese use of force-has generally been taboo in Japanese politics. However, with dramatic change both in Japan and in its security environment, many Japanese have slowly begun to reconsider their role in the post-Cold War world and the legitimate use of force. Internationally, the demise of the Soviet Union, along with the rise of China, transformed Japan’s external security environment. Domestically, the virtual disappearance of the traditional left wing in Japan has dramatically re-sculpted Japan’s political landscape. The result has been a burgeoning debate in Japan on redefining the use of force, and a possible revision or substantial reinterpretation of article 9 of Japan’s “peace constitution.”

Three different rationales and motivations exist behind the debate for constitutional revision. The first is “anchoring the United States in the Alliance” (Alliance Supremacists); the second is “international contribution” (the United Nations Believers); and the third is “maximization of security options” (New Realists). While the position of the New Realists will likely prevail over time, all three will have a significant effect on Japan’s evolving security policy.

The first section of this paper summarizes the arguments of each approach. The next section examines the implications of revision under each approach, with a focus on alliance management, regional stability, and the UN system. Finally, the paper considers ways to alleviate various potentially negative implications of Japan’s redefinition of the use of force on alliance management and regional stability.

Classification of Rationales for Revision

The strong likelihood that Japan will alter its definition of the use of force in the near future impels scholars and policymakers alike to carefully consider various proposals and their impact. Each of the three main proposals is considered below.

Anchoring the United States in the Alliance (Alliance Supremacists)

Alliance supremacists are concerned primarily with the risk of U.S. disengagement from East Asia, reduced U.S. interest in Japan, or the possibility that diminished Japanese support for the U.S. in a security crisis will result in alliance breakup. They argue that Japan should expand its military contributions to the alliance and exercise the right of collective self-defense in order to increase U.S. trust in Japan and further stabilize the alliance.

Despite their eagerness to increase Japanese military roles and missions, Alliance Supremacists seem to ignore the current asymmetrical decisionmaking structure of the alliance. This is a natural consequence of their focus upon anchoring the United States in the alliance. Historical inertia and lack of confidence among Japanese in their domestic political process also explain the unwillingness to restructure the decisionmaking system between the two allies. For example, Narushige Michishita, who insists that Japan share a larger burden in regional security issues, argues that “The U.S. can serve as an honest broker in East Asia because of the credibility of its political system . . . The political systems of Japan, South Korea and China are less trusted.”

International Contribution (The United Nations Believers)

The United Nations (UN) Believers argue that Japan should shoulder greater military burdens through expanding its contributions to international peacekeeping operations. One prominent, if rather extreme, member of this group is Ichiro Ozawa. Ozawa believes that “Japan’s peace activity has no other way but to work primarily with the United Nations-the sole peace organization of which all countries of the world are members,” and so proposes the following amendment to the constitution:



Kiyoshi Sugawa

Senior Researcher, Policy Research Committee, Democratic Party of Japan

The Japanese people must take the lead to participate in the peace activities of international society in order to maintain or restore international peace and security, and must actively contribute to the creation of peace by all means including the provision of force.

In Ozawa’s opinion, Japan should retain its Self Defense Force to ensure Japan’s ability to repel a direct attack on the home islands while also strengthening its cooperation with the UN in its peace operations and establishing a UN Standing Force in Japan.

Historically, Japanese policymakers have utilized popular support for the UN framework and the notion of “international contributions” to justify the gradual overseas dispatch of the SDF, thereby avoiding direct consideration of the right to collective self-defense. Public reticence to support sending the SDF abroad resulted in the numerous constraints established in the 1992 Peacekeeping Operations Bill on the dispatch and conduct of the SDF on peacekeeping operations.

Reactions against these logistical impediments may actually prove the trigger for a constitutional review. As UN missions increase in number, importance, and complexity, Japan’s legal restraints may keep it from playing a role in many important UN operations. Therefore, in order to continue contributing to the UN in ways beyond its previous “checkbook diplomacy,” Japan may be forced to more seriously consider constitutional revision.

Maximization of Security Options (New Realists)

Both the Alliance Supremacists and the UN Believers are largely reactive in nature since they seek to prevent Japan from being abandoned by either the United States or the international community. In contrast, New Realism was born as a positive response to overcome both the fear of abandonment and that of entanglement. This “new nationalism” emphasizes more tangible national interests, seeks to increase Japan’s roles and responsibilities within the U.S. alliance, and looks to develop diverse security options for Japan.

While maintaining support for the U.S. alliance, New Realists emphasize the need for greater Japanese independence within the relationship. They point to the initial nonchalant U.S. response following the August 1998 North Korean Taepodong launch over Japan, together with perceived “Japan-passing” by the United States, as proof that Japan can count on the United States diplomatically and militarily only when it faces “critical” threats, as perceived in Washington.

New Realists support additional security options, such as strengthening indigenous self-defense capacity and the creation of a regional security framework, indicating a declining faith in the U.S. alliance system. While traditional realists in Japan focus simply on alliance strengthening and idealists on an UN-centered approach, New Realists pursue a more pragmatic “middle road.” They look to develop a greater capacity in Japan to advance a more tangible set of broadly defined Japanese national interests.

New Realists largely support The Report of the Century Prime Minister’s Commission on Japan’s Goals in the 21st Century, which points out that “national interests on the international level will be more intertwined and complicated,” and introduces the notion of “enlightened national interest” vis-à-vis traditional narrow-minded nationalism. It urges Japanese to “actively engage in a debate on the national interest based on a healthy form of realism” and not to “shy away from stressing the concept of national interest in the argument of national policy.”

Implications for Foreign Relations

The three schools discussed above all reflect different paths for constitutional revision and the redefinition of the use of force by Japan. Each option has important implications for three key issues in Japan’s foreign relations: the alliance relationship with the United States, regional stability, and the UN system.

On the Alliance Relationship

Alliance Supremacists: More Burden Sharing to Show Solidarity

Alliance Supremacists support a radical re-interpretation of the constitution that would substantially increase Japanese defense burden sharing within the alliance. Katsutoshi Kawano, a Marine SDF (MSDF) officer suggests that the SDF “should enlarge the scope of its operations, specifically to include offensive operations to support U.S. forces within Japanese areas of interest.” He proposes strengthening “functions such as antimine warfare, maritime transport, and seaborne supply” to “support amphibious operations by U.S. forces.”

A bigger Japanese role in the alliance implies a greater Japanese role in the decisionmaking process of the alliance.

However, Alliance Supremacists are so deeply obsessed by the fear of abandonment by the United States that they will be the last to develop such a self-reliant notion. There is also reluctance on the U.S. side to accept more Japanese involvement in decisionmaking.

Current logistical and fiscal restrictions in Japan also limit any dramatic increases in the SDF’s role and mission.

The UN Believers: Status Quo?

The UN Believers tend to support the current division of labor between the alliance with the U.S. and the UN. They propose expanding Japan’s “international contribution,” which usually refers to peacekeeping operations centered on the UN, while retaining the alliance’s primary role of addressing contingencies directly affecting the security of Japan. They argue for the maintenance of current constitutional restrictions on the SDF’s role within the U.S. alliance.

One possible source of tension is that the U.S. may want Japanese support for responding to contingencies that fail to receive UN authorization, such as in the case of Kosovo. If the U.S. continues to resort to such “coalitions of the willing,” as many observers predict,then the UN Believers’ format for constitutional revision would likely result in greater diplomatic friction with the U.S. over Japan’s proper role in such actions.

New Realists: More Role and More Voice

In contrast with both groups cited above, the New Realists aim to reconstitute the alliance relationship on a more equal footing. They are thus more willing to negotiate with Washington to seek a long-term reduction of bases, reduced host-nation support, and a revision of the Status of Forces agreement. As the focus of the alliance shifts from the defense of Japan to contingencies around Japan where both the U.S. and Japan have a common interest, New Realists will emphasize Japanese support for joint military operations that serve tangible Japanese interests.

Like Alliance Supremacists, New Realists support the right to collective self-defense and are willing to increase Japan’s military role in the alliance. However, they also argue that Japan should be more selective in participating in joint operations, and also carry greater decisionmaking power regarding such operations.

Although Tokyo will be more prepared militarily in the future, some of the American experts suggest that the U.S. side may not be ready to trust Japan’s planning capability to be part of the joint decisionmaking process in the near future.

Considering Japan’s lack of experience in military affairs over the past five decades, it may also take some time for Japan to adjust itself to more credible military thinking. Patrick Cronin adds that while Japan’s more active role will make Tokyo a more credible ally, the current state of limited military integration between the two sides will minimize the impact of Japan’s new role.

Constitutional revision then, for the New Realists, will offer Japan greater negotiating leverage, both in its international relations and particularly in the alliance relationship. If New Realist thinking prevails in the next decade, the Alliance may experience tough times as it goes through a restructuring. The American side has not been accustomed to hearing such demands from the Japanese, which may worsen the relationship initially. However, if the two sides fail to develop a closer and more reciprocal coordination mechanism, the negative long-term implications for the alliance are even more significant.

On Regional Stability

Alliance Supremacists: Indifference to the Regional Implications?

The Alliance Supremacists seem to dismiss the regional repercussions of their approach in redefining the use of force. Their concern for alliance disintegration due to Japan’s inability to contribute militarily surpasses their worries of possible regional tension in reaction to Japanese “remilitarization.” Alliance Supremacists tend to think that as long as they have a credible U.S. commitment, Japan can cope with any situation. They argue that either a strong alliance will enable Japan to repel any military threats or that their neighbors, especially allies who maintain bilateral alliances with the U.S., will trust the United States as a reliable third party.

Redefinition of the use of force in the context of strengthening the alliance could also serve as a better way to reassure Asian neighbors, especially U.S. allies. Kawano points out that “the expansion of Japan’s military role would be continuously reviewed under the Japan-U.S. security relationship, and its purpose would be only to establish military postures that effectively support U.S. operations for the maintenance of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan does not need such an expansion of armaments as would destroy the balance of power there.”

Alliance Supremacists tend to downplay the importance of regional distrust of Japan, and so are generally less willing to revisit the history issue. Okazaki argues, for example, that the history issue with South Korea was resolved when President Kim Dae Jung visited Japan in 1998. He adds that China will eventually recognize that the apologists form a small minority in Japanese domestic politics and that Chinese insistence on the history issue will only antagonize the Japanese public to the detriment of Beijing.

The UN Believers: More Acceptable for Neighbors

As stated earlier, the rationale of international contribution underscores the importance of the UN as legitimizer for the use of force. UN Believers argue that if Japan pursues a greater military role within a multilateral framework, this will raise fewer concerns for its neighbors.

The regional power of greatest concern is certainly China. China’s veto in the UN Security Council will undoubtedly serve to reassure Beijing. However, China will likely remain concerned that Japan may circumvent the UN and act under the framework of the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines in a regional contingency. China’s concerns would be best allayed if Japan requires UN authorization for the overseas dispatch of troops.

New Realists: The Most Alarming but Potentially the Most Constructive?

The New Realist approach reflects a belief that Japan cannot count on U.S. support on every occasion. As such, they emphasize the improvement of Japan’s self-defense capability. This school does not advocate a pure “indigenous defense” without the alliance. Rather, in redefining Japan’s use of force, the New Realists seek to enhance certain indigenous defense capabilities while turning to the U.S. alliance for “insurance” against large-scale threats. This approach will initially induce the greatest uncertainty within the region in the short-term, but may prove stabilizing over the long run.

For example, the New Realists will seriously pursue confidence-building measures aimed at reconciliation with Japan’s neighbors in order to build regional support for Japan’s redefinition of the use of force and its proactive diplomacy. For example, Hatoyama argues that amending article 9 compels the Japanese to directly address the history issue. He states, “Asian countries would not believe us if we say Japan will never engage in war of aggression in the future while denying the fact of our war of aggression in the past.”

Unlike Japan’s largely symbolic proposals in the past, New Realist policies and priorities will speed the establishment of an Asian multilateral security framework.

Any initiative from Tokyo for a regional security mechanism lacks persuasive power if Japan bans its overseas use of force and offers only financial support for the regional organization. By lowering restraints on the use of force through constitutional revision, Tokyo can begin implementation with a more positive and active role in promoting regional security organizations.

Certainly, the creation of such a regional security organization is not possible through Tokyo’s effort alone. It exceeds Japan’s capacity to unilaterally bear military and financial burdens. Regional partners will also reject a dominant Japanese role. It remains to be seen whether Japan can gain U.S. support, since the U.S. is lukewarm toward regional security mechanisms in East Asia. New Realists argue that despite U.S. concerns, Japan should begin to demonstrate its will and ability to contribute military means to regional collective security arrangements.

On the United Nations

Alliance Supremacists: Concern for Different Value

Those who explicitly oppose any participation in the UN peace operations are an absolute minority in Japan. Unlike the UN Believers, however, Alliance Supremacists and New Realists, are more skeptical about the present UN system. Alliance Supremacists are particularly concerned with Japan being constrained by disagreements on the Security Council, and tend to support the UN-based approach only as far as it does not sacrifice the Alliance framework.

In other words, Japan will be willing to participate in UN peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations when the U.S. is ready to get involved. When the UN is paralyzed by Security Council disagreement, Japan under this rationale would act almost unconditionally with the U.S.

The UN Believers: Ideal Becomes Reality

Based on a faith in the UN system as a legitimate conflict resolution mechanism and a strong aspiration to make a contribution to the UN, the international contribution rationale would theoretically push Japan to dramatically expand its support for UN operations, both peacekeeping and peace enforcement. This group will also be the most tolerant toward maintaining the current generous level of Japanese financial support for the UN. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as many political leaders, may support this rationale, as they seek to take advantage of an increased Japanese military role to build UN support for Japan’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council.

There will be three potential difficulties for Japan if reforms of the use of force are carried out under the rationale of UN Believers. First, Japan will not be able to respond effectively to cases where the UN authorization is not available, such as was the case in Kosovo. Second, this rationale would lead Japan to send the SDF to “peace-enforcement” type of peacekeeping operations, which are far more dangerous and could potentially result in a higher casualty rate. Japan’s high level of public support for low-cost “international contributions” may not prove durable in the face of mounting Japanese deaths due to UN humanitarian operations. Third, Japan may run the risk of “overstretch” of its fiscal resources. With over 6 trillion dollars in debt, Japan may prove unable to expand its support of the UN. Before their program for the redefinition of the use of force can move forward, the UN Believers will have to address these three crucial issues in a more systematic manner.

New Realists: Selective Engagement

Focused primarily on the pursuit of Japan’s national interests, the New Realists are unwilling to allow decisionmaking on Japan’s use of force to depend either on the U.S., as the Alliance Supremacists argue, or on a consensus in the UN Security Council, as supported by UN Believers.

Instead they would support UN peace operations that demand the overt use of force to the extent that such operations would address critical Japanese national interests. But this does not mean that Japan will reduce its participation in future UN peacekeeping operations. Some New Realists claim that Japan should have the option to participate in multilateral military operations even without UN authorization, as long as a Japanese vital interest is at stake.

New Realists also support a more balanced approach to Japan’s overall support for the UN, as illustrated in their concerns about Japan’s current level of fiscal support to the world body. Japan’s high level of support, currently 20% of the overall UN budget, was due to its limited ability to offer military contributions. As Japan begins to play a greater military role, and is yet still unable to gain a permanent seat on the Security Council, public support for this high level of financial contributions in the face of mounting fiscal deficits will likely decline. The New Realists are prepared to address this and related issues in direct negotiations with the UN and member states.

New Challenges for Japan and the World

Under all three of these arguments for a redefinition of the use of force, either through substantial reinterpretation or revision of the constitution, a “new Japan” will cause uncertainty both within the alliance and in the Asia-Pacific region. Regardless what specific policy path Japan chooses, Japanese leaders should take certain key steps to alleviate some of these predictable tensions.

Divergence within the Alliance

Many U.S. security experts at least implicitly expect that Japanese redefinition of the use of force means that “Japan that says yes, not no, to American military requests.”

In fact, Tokyo needs to develop its own ideas and criteria about the use of force. Such ideas are most clearly expressed in the New Realists framework, which focuses on a clearer articulation of Japan’s own national interests. While this may result in some tension, their shared values along with common strategic and commercial interests should enable Japan and the United States to reach a general consensus on most military policies.

In order to achieve greater policy coordination, however, the two sides need to develop a new mechanism for coordination. At present, the alliance lacks a real coordination mechanism. A productive first step has been the implementation of the new defense guidelines, which will generate a military-to-military coordination mechanism for handling logistical issues. After the revision of article 9, however, both countries will need to create a mechanism that includes not only the military but also politicians, and discusses not only tactical but also strategic issues.

Divergent policy preferences on Kosovo and East Timor in recent years illustrate the importance of institutionalizing such mechanisms. Even more importantly, the possibility of tension in the Taiwan Straits demands that the two sides are able to link common security interests to a joint military policy aimed at addressing likely conflict scenarios. With such realistic, in-depth, and more equitable policy coordination, the alliance can remain stable and effective as Japan moves to redefine its use of force in the 21st Century.

Combating Negative Impacts on the Region

If not managed carefully, Japan’s revision of the use of force may prove unsettling to its immediate neighbors and destabilizing to the region as a whole. American strategists have therefore proposed various strategies for Japan to follow, such as incrementalism, basing such changes either within the alliance or in a multilateral framework, and expanding confidence building measures in the region.

Michael Green underscores the importance of incremental change in the Japanese redefinition of the use of force. He argues that while recognizing the right of collective self-defense, Japan should continue its primarily defensive role within the alliance.

However, Japan should not simply pursue its redefinition of the use of force within the current alliance framework. Domestically, many Japanese are concerned that such a policy would allow the U.S. to overly influence Japan’s security policy. In addition, China would likely perceive such coordination amid Japan’s changing security policy as linked to a joint policy of containment. Therefore, retaining the current focus on the alliance would function best if it entails reinvention of the alliance toward more symmetry, including Japan’s greater involvement in decisionmaking.

Alternatively, many Americans favor Japan redefining its use of force within a multilateral framework, suggesting an increase in UN peacekeeping both in terms of quality and quantity.

Mike Mochizuki notes that China will dislike whatever changes Japan proposes in how it will exercise the right of collective self-defense and will invariably perceive it as a sign of Japan’s remilitarization. He proposes that Japan initially obtain understanding about its new definition of force from U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific, such as Canada, Australia, the ROK, the Philippines, and Thailand. Others point out the potential of the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral approach for building regional support

Mochizuki and O’Hanlon also advocate that “Tokyo and Washington work towards a multilateral collective-security arrangement for the region as their explicit long-term goal.”

However, several other authors are less optimistic that the U.S. would, or should, support such efforts to establish a broad-based regional security framework. Richard Samuels and Christopher Twomey, for example, argue that multilateralism in Asia, whether a formal collective defense alliance or a collective security arrangement, will not “provide adequately for American interests in the next few decades” from the point of necessity, feasibility, and effectiveness.

Regardless of the security framework chosen, Japan’s redefinition of the use of force should definitely include a policy of offering greater reassurance for its Asian neighbors. Hinting that perceptions in each country may be different from Japan’s own perspective, Scott Snyder stresses the importance of transparency in the coming constitutional debate. Mike McDevitt suggests that Japanese restraint on the quantity and nature of military equipment would reduce regional anxiety. Japanese political “liberals” should take the lead in implementing a range of substantive confidence-building measures. For the history issue, the joint study of the past war with Chinese and Koreans and disclosure of diplomatic documents in the prewar and during war period should be considered. Japan should also facilitate regional economic integration through the establishment of free trade and investment agreements with the ROK, ASEAN countries, and even with the PRC in the future. A combination of the above measures will serve to allay regional anxieties and ease Japan’s transition into becoming a more prominent and influential player on security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.


While it may be too soon to predict which one of the three rationales for the revision of article 9 of the Constitution will prevail, the policy steps and overall framework proposed by the New Realists best address both Japan’s own political concerns and long-term U.S. interests. The New Realists’ plan for reinvention of the alliance, which would both increase Japan’s military role and its participation in alliance decisionmaking, is essential to stabilize the alliance.

Unless the security environment drastically deteriorates in the future, it is unlikely that a majority of the Japanese public will be fully persuaded by the Alliance Supremacists. Lacking the Soviet Union as a formidable common enemy, the U.S. and Japan acknowledged in the 1997 defense guidelines that “Although the Cold War has ended, the potential for instability and uncertainty persists in the Asia-Pacific region. Accordingly, the maintenance of peace and stability in this region has assumed greater importance for the security of Japan.” However, precisely because North Korea and China remain only “potential” threats, it is difficult to expect the Japanese public to unconditionally support Japan’s larger military role solely for the sake of showing solidarity with the United States. To many Japanese, the argument of Alliance Supremacists appears to be “give and give,” since Japan increases its fiscal burden in return for just a very vague notion of “regional stability.” In addition, the UN Believers approach will only shape Japan’s future definition of the use of force if the security environment in Northeast Asia improves dramatically and confidence in the UN decisionmaking mechanism and military capability revives during the debates surrounding a possible constitutional revision.

On the other hand, New Realists insist that their proposal for reinventing the alliance is “give and take,” as Japan is to achieve both a bigger role and a bigger voice in the alliance. New Realists have other merits as well. They can appeal to a healthy sense of nationalism that is increasingly popular in Japan, while distinguishing themselves from the traditional type of ultra-nationalism. Their comprehensive view of wishing to increase national security options should enable them to pursue a multifaceted approach to security policy, thus minimizing conflict with supporters of the U.S. alliance and those who trust the UN system.

Regardless of which rationale proves dominant, Japan has already begun to reconsider its military role. External criticism and pressure will not reverse this process, and so all parties must seek policies that will foster a stable and smooth transition. While both the U.S. and the region must accommodate the “new Japan,” the Japanese also need to minimize any potentially negative impacts of constitutional revision. Three crucial steps should be taken: strengthen the alliance while reducing its asymmetry, implement confidence building measures, including a review of history-related issues, and create a regional conflict resolution mechanism in which Japan would play both military and financial roles.

Japan’s revision of its constitution and article 9 is sometimes called a Pandora’s box. But even in Pandora’s box, “hope” remained. If we anticipate the possible impact of Japan’s redefinition of the use of force and prepare well, we can assure that the emergent “new Japan” plays a positive role in international relations for the 21st century.