The Parameters of Japan's New Security Legislation Are Being Framed in Africa

by Jeremy Taylor
November 9, 2015

Jeremy Taylor looks at the African context in which the deepening and widening of Japan’s international security posture is taking place and the role of those deployments in advancing the military normalization agenda of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In September 2015 the Japanese Diet’s Upper House passed controversial security legislation that radically alters the interpretation of Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution. While the stated purpose of the legislation is to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to come to the defense of allies such as the United States, even if Japan is not itself under attack, the application of these new laws is being tested far from the public consciousness of most Japanese: in the waters off the Horn of Africa and in South Sudan.

The new security legislation reinterprets constitutional limits on the use of military force to allow for “collective self-defense” of allies and potential participation in foreign conflicts. The only Japanese military forces currently deployed overseas are those involved in antipiracy operations off the Horn of Africa and peacekeepers deployed to the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS). It is therefore important to recognize the African context in which the deepening and widening of Japan’s international security posture is taking place and the role of those deployments in advancing the military normalization agenda of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japan has contributed to the international counterpiracy operation known as the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia since its inception in 2009. In so doing, the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) works closely with the organized naval task forces in the region, such as the European Union’s ATALANTA, the U.S.-led Combined Task Force 151, and NATO’s Ocean Shield. Japan is not a part of a distinct task force, but its contributions to multinational antipiracy operations are significant for a number of reasons.

Most notably, these operations have led the MSDF to establish a naval base in Djibouti—the first base outside Japan since the end of World War II. Japan’s military presence in Djibouti began in May 2009 when the MSDF rented space at Camp Lemonnier—the only official U.S. military base in Africa. The base is located alongside Djibouti’s airport and makes use of its runway. In July 2011 the Japanese contingent moved to a facility alongside Camp Lemonnier called the Japanese Facility for Counter-Piracy Mission in Djibouti. Though the Japanese government avoids the word “base” because this implies a permanent deployment, analysts estimate the facility will be in operation for ten years.

The Anti-Piracy Measures Law passed by the Diet in June 2009 allowed for the SDF’s first operation abroad that was not restricted to rear-area support such as transportation or refueling. It enabled the MSDF to protect any ship, including those without Japanese connections. The ongoing deployment also enabled the Japan Coast Guard and MSDF lobbies to defend budgetary claims and created a platform upon which these forces could build experience, test equipment, and develop interoperability with existing allies such as the United States and potential future allies such as India.

Moreover, the antipiracy operation bolstered the progression of Japan’s defense legislation and set a precedent that led to the reinterpretation of the constitution. In 2013, special legislation passed that allowed Japanese vessels to transport civilian armed guards. The MSDF deployment off the Horn of Africa has therefore been crucial to advancing the debate within Japan over the role of the SDF while signaling the country’s ambitions to increase its international military relevance and presence.

Japan’s peacekeeping contributions in South Sudan also reflect its emerging security agenda. The International Peace Cooperation Law of 1992 authorized Japan to participate in UN peacekeeping operations for the first time, with the first deployment to Cambodia taking place in September 1992. Apart from small numbers of Japanese personnel deployed as election and military observers, logisticians, and headquarters staff in a number of UN peacekeeping missions, Japan’s most significant contributions up until now had been the deployment of an engineering contingent to Timor-Leste in 2002 and the provision of 192 peacekeepers to Haiti in 2010.

Japan’s peacekeeping involvement in South Sudan began in November 2011, when the Ground Self-Defense Force deployed an engineering unit of 330 personnel (later expanded to 400) to the country. The contingent is tasked with infrastructure projects such as road restoration, as well as maintenance and improvement of UN logistics facilities. Today, Japanese peacekeepers are positioned at the sharp end of the debate about Japan’s security laws as the country seeks to expand security operations. The fragile and unstable context of South Sudan provides a real-world urgency often forgotten in the discourse that has accompanied the new legislation.

Just as the legislation of 1992 was likely a response by the Toshiki Kaifu administration to international criticism during the Gulf War, in which Japan’s contribution was limited to financial support, the UNMISS deployment helps Japan maintain its international standing. Following the withdrawal of much smaller Japanese contingents from Haiti in 2012 and the Golan Heights in 2013 due to the Syrian civil war, Japan faced increasing pressure to join peacekeeping missions, especially as domestic concern about the disparity between Chinese and Japanese peacekeeping contributions grew.

In addition, the military had its own perspective on the value of deployment in South Sudan. Peacekeeping operations offered unrivaled opportunities for the logistical training and equipment testing that are crucial for the military’s growing role in Japan’s geopolitical ambitions. South Sudan’s proximity to Western countries and importance to U.S. policy in Africa meant that providing peacekeepers was a win-win situation for Japan. As a senior Japanese strategist explained, the operation allows Japan “to revive our presence in the international security community, support our allies, kind of compete with China, and establish a stepping stone to bolster our position in Africa.” [1]

Despite the steady drip of legislation that has allowed the SDF to broaden its mandate through peacekeeping and support for U.S. operations in Iraq, the SDF needs clearer legal and regulatory provisions to define its rules of engagement abroad. Japan’s international security operations are still colored by unique constitutional restrictions on military engagement and widespread popular opposition to reinterpreting the constitution. These limitations are increasingly apparent as the SDF’s activities expand to include dangerous and unstable overseas missions.

For now, Japanese peacekeepers in South Sudan rely on Rwandese soldiers to provide their security and cannot come to the aid of fellow UNMISS troops. The Abe administration has indicated that it will wait until November 2016 or even later to expand the role of Japan’s peacekeepers in line with the new security legislation that allows them to act in defense of civilians and UNMISS troops from other countries. These new allowances mark a sea-change in Japan’s overseas military operations in the postwar era. The decision to delay implementation of the legislation in South Sudan, however, no doubt reflects an important political consideration: no one has been killed by the SDF since World War II, and the political fallout from an incident of this sort might be too much for Abe to bear given his low approval ratings. This is especially relevant because these low ratings reflect popular discontent with the reinterpretation of the constitution and the manner in which the laws were pushed through the Diet.

Yet despite slow implementation, the overriding message from the Abe administration is that Japan is not a country in decline. As such, its peacekeeping operations are now part of the “Japan revitalized” discourse that has characterized Abe’s current tenure as prime minister. Japan’s peacekeeping deployment in South Sudan and antipiracy operation in Djibouti tie together long-apparent ambitions to reinterpret the constitution with an emerging foreign policy agenda that includes a more visible and relevant military dimension. Combined with Japan’s increasing aid, investment, and presence in Africa, it is apparent that this region is gradually entering the strategic imagination of Japanese policymakers. Africa is shifting from the periphery to the arena in which Japan’s evolving international security identity is being developed and its new security policy is being implemented.


[1] Author interview, Tokyo, October 3, 2013.

This brief has been made possible by the generous support of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.