Thousands of Japanese military personnel have previously traveled around the world to assist the UN in some of the most volatile hotspots. However, priorities have shifted at home. Thousands of police officers, civilian election observers, and members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have served under the United Nations flag in the past. Japan now only allows six officials to serve with the UN, and all of them work in command facilities rather than on the front lines.
According to analysts, as conflicts become more volatile, politicians in Tokyo have become increasingly averse to the growing risks associated with participating in operations abroad. Furthermore, as tensions in Northeast Asia rise, there is an urgent need to keep troops closer to home.
Taking a step back implies that Japan will play a smaller role in maintaining international peace, which was the opposite intention of the International Peace Cooperation Law, enacted in June 1992, which established a framework for sending personnel overseas.
Since the passage of this legislation, Japanese personnel have ensured the smooth running of elections, rescued natural disaster survivors and carried out airlifts, and rebuilt schools, hospitals, and bridges all over the world.
The Self-Defense Forces’ last large-scale deployment was in South Sudan, where a 350-strong military contingent was stationed in Juba beginning in 2012. However, due to the escalating threat of violence, this was abruptly terminated in May 2017.
“The Japanese mission was to carry out engineering work to assist the local population, and they were working alongside some very capable other foreign units, from France, Britain, and China,” said Garren Mulloy, a professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University.
“But then fighting broke out in Juba, and the Ministry of Defense, the head of the SDF, and then-defense minister [Tomomi] Inada covered up the fact that the units were in the vicinity of armed conflict,” he told DW.
According to the 1992 legislation, Japanese peacekeeper units are only permitted to operate in areas where ceasefires are in effect, and the use of weapons “shall be limited to the minimum necessary to protect personnel’s lives.”
Given the strict rules of operation, Tokyo decided to preemptively withdraw its units. When asked about the early departure, bureaucrats and senior military officials fabricated documents and claimed others could not be found, Mulloy said.
Japanese public opinion has consistently been unconvinced of the need for troops deployed abroad. When the truth about the deployment became public, the government was widely chastised both at home and abroad. It did not help Tokyo’s image with either of its partners, who concluded that Japan was “untrustworthy and incompetent,” according to Mulloy.
This was a far cry from Tokyo’s original plan, according to Mulloy, which was to raise the country’s international profile at a time when the economy was booming and there was widespread expectation that a more confident Japan would play a larger role in global security, economic, and political issues.
Two Japanese soldiers were killed while on UN duty in Cambodia in 1992, both during an election monitoring mission. It was the first mission since the legislation was passed in 1992, and the deaths prompted calls for the unit to be disbanded, including in the National Diet. The government of the time resisted these calls, but it set the tone for future governments who feared that body bags returning to Japan from abroad would be fatal.
According to an analyst with Japan’s National Institute of Defense Studies, the fear has grown as the global security situation has deteriorated in recent years (NIDS).
“There has been a clear change in the environment,” said the official, who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak with the media.
According to the official, there were additional motivators. “Japanese governments have asked themselves what the benefits are of sending the SDF to places like Africa or the Middle East,” he explained. “Of course, they get some on-the-ground experience, but Japan now needs to focus on advanced technologies to ensure its own defense, which cannot be learned on a peacekeeping mission.”