Below is the first half of a lengthy interview with Michael Green, one of Washington’s best-known specialists on Japan and US-Japan relations, discussing recent changes in Japan’s security policy. The second section takes up history issues, and Japan’s troubled relationship with Korea.
Dr. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and an associate professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He served on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) from 2001 through 2005.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Now that a bit of time has passed, how do you evaluate the first Abe Cabinet’s decision in July regarding collective self-defense? Is this a historic turning point for Japan, or is it just one more incremental step in a process of Japan normalizing its security policy?
GREEN: Like everything in Japan, it is a bit like the kamemushi-jiro – the bug that changes color in different light. I think the change is historically significant. It will be reported in history books as such. But it still has to survive Diet deliberations, as legislation is tabled next spring or summer. The precise definition of what the Self Defense Forces can do could still go in several different directions, depending on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s own political position at the time.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Let’s follow up on that point a bit later. With respect to what you see as a historic shift, why is Abe getting all the credit? Japan has been moving in this direction for quite some time, albeit with a lot less fanfare.
GREEN: That is a very good question. There is “incrementalism” in Japanese security policy; no sudden changes or surprises. The history goes way back to 1954, with the establishment of the Self Defense Forces. The United States has generally supported Japan taking on larger roles.
The really big change occurred in 2001, when former prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa endorsed Japan exercising the right of collective self-defense.
Miyazawa was the inheritor of the Yoshida Doctrine, under which Japan stuck to a strict interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution. Self defense narrowly defined did not allow Japan’s entrance into a conflict that did not involve a clear attack on Japan itself. But Miyazawa said that international circumstances had changed. He said that Yoshida’s original intent was not to forever preserve the constitutional prohibitions ascribed to Article 9. Miyazawa worried that if Japan did not bend a bit on this critical constitutional issue, the Constitution itself might break.
Miyazawa made his comments both to acknowledge the reality of the changing, post-Cold War security environment, and to preserve the spirit of Article 9.
Historians looking at this will probably cite Miyazawa’s comments as the turning point.
Keep in mind that Miyazawa was not an anti-mainstream person within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He was not a conservative-realist, which by contrast, Abe is, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi.
Miyazawa viewed himself as a protector of the Yoshida line. So his 2001 endorsement of collective self-defense was very significant.
There have been other incremental changes. The most notable to me was the change in rules of engagement in the Arabian Sea, where Japan’s SDF is engaged in counter-piracy operations. The Maritime Self-Defense Forces were authorized to use force to help protect other coalition ships.
From a constitutional standpoint, the “out” for the SDF was that piracy is not state-controlled. Anti-piracy is a police activity.
But under Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan [the DPJ briefly broke the LDP postwar grip on power from 2009 through 2012] the government created a joint missile defense task force to deal with North Korea. The task force was under the control of an officer who was authorized to engage in the event a missile was deemed to be headed toward Japan.
Both of these were important steps by Japan, expanding the definition of self-defense action by the SDF.
Prime Minister Noda personally was in favor of collective self-defense, as were other DPJ leaders around him, such as Nagashima and Maehara. Noda’s study commission on the next national defense plan suggested moving in that direction.
Of course, Noda could not deliver because he did not have a consensus within the DPJ.
But this background shows that collective self-defense was not original to Abe.
I don’t think there is a single leader in Japanese politics of consequence who disagrees with this policy direction.
There are disagreements over the context created by the history issue. Some disagree, for tactical reasons, with the process Abe introduced. But no one who has a chance of being prime minister in the next 10 years disagrees with Japan exercising the right of collective self-defense.
In that sense, this is not very revolutionary.
DISPATH JAPAN: It seems many Japanese view this through different prisms. Abe has always opposed Article 9 as perhaps the quintessential example of the US imposing ‘victor’s justice’ on Japan. But the foreign policy and defense elite seem to have more practical reasons for supporting collective self-defense.
GREEN: I think that is right. And I think Abe himself has a practical approach. He has been very clear to his supporters who want changes to Article 9 that this will take multiple years, and that Japan has to deal with immediate problems, including how to enhance security in a more challenging environment.
Abe told me when I saw him last summer that he thought changing Article 9 is a separate issue for the future. He would like to change Article 9, but it is not the immediate priority. The priority is facing immediate security problems, which means reinterpreting Article 9.
Abe was definitely feeling pressure from supporters on the right to not stop at reinterpretation, and instead push for changing Article 9. But Abe said that would be impractical at this time. Abe continues to support a revision of Article 9, but he ultimately found himself in the practical camp.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Couldn’t this have been done with less fanfare? My sense is that Abe wanted to make this into a big public debate, because it is part of his drive to revive patriotism, and to end what he sees as a lingering postwar self-image in Japan of a defeated nation.
GREEN: He would have been damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
The opposition and some of the media have criticized Abe for not being transparent enough, or not explaining enough, when in fact he was extremely transparent. He spoke a good deal in the Diet about his proposed changes, and he organized and publicized the findings of the Kitaoka Commission, which studied the issue.
He was much more transparent than in any other past case in which the government reexamined legal interpretations of Article 9, especially in 1954, when the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB) was completely secretive and non-transparent when it put forward the traditional interpretation of “individual self-defense.”
If Abe had been less transparent, he would have been criticized even more.
He had to make the case politically, and I think the fanfare came out of political necessity, rather than Abe trying to make a carnival of it all.
A much easier way would have been to simply have Ichiro Komatsu, whom Abe handpicked to head the CLB, issue a new interpretation of Aricle 9, and fire anyone who disagreed. It was within his power to have done that. But he clearly did not want to take that approach; he wanted as much public understanding and political support as possible, and support from his junior coalition partner, Komeito.
Ironically, Abe’s open and transparent approach wound up confusing people even more. The more people learned about it, the more they became confused. Polls show that a majority of people say there was not enough explanation. I think that shows that the explanation was not effective; there was a shortfall in communication by the prime minister, but not for reasons of lack of transparency.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you think Abe is unhappy with the outcome thus far?
GREEN: No, I don’t. I’m sure he is not happy that his polls slipped to the mid-40s after the Cabinet decision, and that the LDP lost the recent gubernatorial race in Shiga, although the collective self-defense issue was not the only reason for that.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the single most important element of the new policy?
GREEN: The key outcome thus far is how the Cabinet Statement defines “integration” and the use of force.
Abe dropped “collective security,” or the UN peacekeeping phase, because that can be revisited later under the peacekeeping law. “Collective security” is distinct from “collective self-defense.”
And he put up some walls around scenarios that might have involved dispatching SDF forces abroad; for the most part, he ruled that out.
But he kept the most important thing: a reinterpretation of what would constitute inappropriate integration in the use of force. [The traditional interpretation has been that “rear area” or “logistical” support to US forces engaged in combat cannot become so “integrated” (ittaika) that SDF personnel become integral to those combat operations. SDF becoming so integral would, in effect, constitute Japan itself engaging in the use of force not in reaction to an attack on Japan, which is banned by Article 9 of the Constitution. Ed.]
This has always been the key contentious element of the US-Japan alliance. Japanese officials went back to the 1954 interpretation, which said that collective self-defense is allowed under the UN Charter, but could not be exercised by Japan, because Japan, to be consistent with Article 9, had to limit its use of force in self-defense to the absolute minimum required.
The 1954 interpretation defined collective self-defense as being above and beyond the threshold of what constitutes “minimal necessary defense.”
Abe has not changed that essential formula. Defense policy still has to adhere and conform to the notion of “minimal necessary” defense capability.
Abe has said that the change in the security environment, and changes in technology, requires that Japan think differently about the notion of “minimal necessary” defense, especially with respect to “integration” and the use of force with the US, and other allies.
Before now, any integration in the use of force was prohibited.
When I worked on the 1998 revisions of the US-Japan bilateral defense guidelines, the Japanese government put up all sorts of roadblocks, arguing that because of the prohibition against “integration,” Japan could not even do from the rear many things that normal allies regularly do to assist US forces.
We were not talking about dispatching Japanese combat troops abroad. We were talking about Japan loading ammunition onto vehicles, or missile defense.
The new interpretation adopted by the Cabinet says that some aspects of rear area support, even if integrated in the use of force by the US or another ally, are appropriate, and fall below the threshold of minimal necessary defense.
The new policy acknowledges that the defense of Japan depends on the ability of Japan to work with allies in a crisis.
This is what the US needed to have.
In the Quadrennial Defense Review, the US said that it would have to rely on allies more. That does not mean that the US needs Japanese “boots on the ground.” That is not the most important element, at all.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How does this newly-authorized “integration” translate operationally?
GREEN: The most important element is integration of information. In warfare, and in deterrence, the side that can better see the battlefield will win.
We have increasingly learned this since the first Gulf War. The term is the “revolution in military affairs.”
The “air-sea” battle doctrine is not a strategy for East Asia. It is basically a technology concept, in which the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines need to be able to share information, and create a common picture of the battlefield. An F-35 jet fighter can know where the bad guys are at the same time that a naval destroyer does.
That is what the US Pacific Command – the Navy and the Air Force – really needed. They wanted to know that as the US military integrates information systems across the services, providing a superior battlefield picture, we can do it with Japan locked-in with us.
The idea of Japanese boots on the ground was never an issue. That was a big distraction by Mainichi Shimbun and some other media. The issue is Japan’s Self Defense Forces being more joint and interoperable with each other and with us.
In modern warfare and deterrence this is very powerful, because it means we will share the same threat assessment. Decisions about whether or not to take action can be made jointly and quickly.
It means it would be a lot harder for China or someone else to drive a wedge between us. Japanese and US personnel will be sitting together, looking at the same threat assessments.
In my view, this newly-allowed integration of rear area support in the use of force primarily involves information.
This is the key to making the alliance more effective.
I recently had a public talk with Admiral Greenert, the chief of US naval operations, at a CSIS forum. He said the most important part of Japan’s new policy on collective self-defense, of which he was very supportive, is about integrating and sharing information.
This means the US and Japan will be a lot more “joint,” and a lot more dependent on each other. That is a really good thing. And China hates it. It makes the US-Japan alliance a lot more agile; better able to respond to contingencies, and to bring different assets to the problem.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How much of this is about Korea?
GREEN: It is not just about Korea, but Korea is a critical consideration. Since the Korean War, we have known that we would flow all of our reinforcements, and have defense depth, from Japan.
But it is also about the “first island chain.” [This is defined by specialists as the first chain of major archipelagos that seals off the Yellow, East, and South China Seas from the Pacific Ocean, and is the gateway to the Indian Ocean. Many US strategists believe China would like to secure the first island chain, and deny American naval access to the waters behind the chain. Ed.]
Concerning Korea, I’ve given the example of the 100 or so small submarines maintained by North Korea, which are very hard to pickup and monitor. It is in our contingencies concerning conflict on the Korean peninsula that North Korea would deploy these small subs. If some were to get by the US and ROK anti-submarine naval “picket ships” equipped with sonar detection devices, they would suddenly be in the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, posing a great danger to US vessels. We – all of us -- need to be jointly tracking those subs from the beginning. We can’t have a situation where the US and ROK say: “They are out of our zone. Japan, you now have to find them.” The entire monitoring and detection system needs to be integrated.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Does Abe aspire for Japan to have the militarily operational capabilities of a Britain or France?
GREEN: Except for nuclear weapons, I think that is the trajectory favored by Abe and others in the conservative-realist camp in Japan.
It is a very practical, realist assessment of what Japan has to do to enhance deterrence at a time of growing threats and limited Japanese and US resources.
This pragmatic view, more than ideology, is driving Abe.
There is another dimension that often goes unstated: From Kishi through Nakasone, to Koizumi and Abe, the anti-Yoshida line within the LDP has wanted more equal status with the US. This means a willingness to accept more risk in the alliance with the US, while pressing to be treated as a “normal” country, like Britain.
This has implications for US bases in Japan, and other issues.
Abe himself has not articulated things in this way. But a number of people around him see a direct line from this growing capability to growing flexibility in how the US does basing in Japan.
DISPATCH JAPAN: “Greater flexibility” meaning what?
GREEN: Meaning that if Japan agrees to more “jointness” with the US, the US would not need its own, completely controlled bases. The US could reduce bases and turn some over to Japan.
Rich Armitage and Joe Nye had the same idea. In the writing of the 2000 Armitage-Nye report, we made the key point that if Japan were to exercise the right of collective self-defense, we should move toward more joint use of bases, and more bases should be under a Japanese flag. If the US and Japan can operate more confidently together, the US would not need autonomous bases within Japan in the same way as today.
Japanese realists connect the dots between the exercising of collective self-defense, US bases, and greater Japanese equal status with the US.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Prime Minister Abe created quite a stir in Seoul recently when he stated in Diet deliberations that the US would need to consult with Japan before it could use bases in Japan to respond to a crisis in Korea.
GREEN: I think those comments were overblown. He was not trying to make any kind of threat. Anyone who has followed this issue knows that there are some bases flagged as “United Nations” under the Status of Forces Agreement, and that the “UN” – aka the United States – can use those bases if the Korean Armistice is broken by North Korea. That is no big secret.
Right now, the only guarantee we have about access to bases in Japan in a Korea crisis is the stipulation in the Status of Forces agreement that the UN-flagged bases would automatically be available if the Armistice were broken.
I think Abe was trying to make the case for collective self-defense; a new interpretation would bring greater clarity and predictability to the ability of the US-Japan alliance to respond to a Korea crisis, and that this is in the interest of South Korea.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Didn’t the Guidelines review of 1998 clarify some of this?
GREEN: Yes. The review partly cleared the way for cooperating in a regional contingency. That was an important step in the continuing evolution of Japanese security policy. But even after the 1998 Guidelines review, Japan was still very limited in its ability to act in concert with the US.
The big change now is that the easing of the ban on “integration and the use of force” will make it much easier for Japan to more fully cooperate with the US in rear area support, and on programs like missile defense.
It is not true to say that in a Korea contingency, the US could not use bases in Japan other than the seven UN-flagged bases. The US would need a lot more than those seven bases. The Japanese government has had the legal authority to grant use of other bases. But it is also true that the US would have to seek permission.
And while it has always been pretty much assumed that the permission would be granted, it has always been a bit unclear just how much support Japan could provide under the traditional interpretation of Article 9.
The new policy will make the alliance much more reliable, both with respect to US access to the necessary additional facilities, and with respect to the kinds of support Japan can provide, which is what I believe Abe was trying to say.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you envision joint task forces, with Japanese personnel operating under an American commander?
GREEN: Yes. I think that is the direction we want to go in. We already have that, de facto, with the integrated air defense command at Yokota. We also have that, de facto, with the counter-piracy task force, off the coast of Somalia. We also came very close to this in the response to the triple disaster in March, 2011.
That is the general direction Abe is headed in. It is remarkable in the context of the US-Japan alliance history.
Some political scientists continue to argue that the ban on collective self-defense, and “integration” in the use of force, were reflections of a pacifist, anti-war culture in Japan, after the Second World War.
There is a lot of truth to that. But equally important, the arrangement was a very cynical way for Yoshida and his mainstream LDP supporters to put up a barricade to the US pulling Japan into another war, in the way we did in the Korean War.
For Yoshida, it was a way to preserve Japan’s autonomy: Have an alliance with the US, but Japan would not be entrapped, or pulled into a conflict with China or North Korea, or any other Asian neighbor, at a time that Japan was trying to focus on economic recovery.
I have always thought that Article 9, and the ban on collective self-defense, were not just about pacifism. They were a very smart way for Japan to preserve its autonomy.
DISPATCH JAPAN: You see that changing.
GREEN: Yes, but how much remains to be seen. The Kitaoka [Yanai] report shows that Japan is reversing that course, and moving in the opposite direction. How far? I don’t know. I am not sure.
But Japan is definitely moving toward more shared risk with the US; Japan faces more risks, over the Senkakus, and North Korea.
This means virtual, if not actual, joint combined relationships among our armed forces.
This is completely the opposite of the narrative of Japan’s postwar history.
It is historic, even if it looks and seems to be incremental.