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Japan Set to Clarify Defense Mandate

Potential danger from North Korea was the chief reason for changes in posture, observers say.

May 16, 2003|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Japan's powerful Lower House of Parliament on Thursday overwhelmingly passed three war-contingency bills that give the government its clearest defense mandate since World War II.

For decades, Japan's defense posture has been shaped -- some would say contorted -- by deep divisions within Japanese society, its U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution and fears of an Asian backlash.

In a sharp break with the past, however, passage of the bills, first proposed in 1977, was relatively fast with support from both major parties. Passage is all but assured in the largely pro forma Upper House before the legislative session ends in mid-June.

"This is an important, long-standing issue," said Akio Watanabe, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security. "It's also long overdue."

Supporters said the measures take a big step toward allowing Japan to do what most other countries take as a given -- defend itself from aggression. Critics counter that the bills were railroaded through parliament without proper debate and fret that the new stance could drag Japan into a U.S.-led war.

The three bills give the prime minister authority over central and local government agencies in the event of an "imminent threat," allow troops to use private property under certain circumstances, bolster Japan's crisis-response system and provide punishments for citizens who flout emergency laws.

The bills attempt to address some of the near-comical gaps in defense policy between national and local jurisdiction. Under existing law, for instance, Self-Defense Forces soldiers who want to dig trenches in a private garden face months of local council meetings and legal challenges before their shovels touch the earth.

Their structures must follow Japanese building codes, any emergency drugs must meet health standards and soldiers are required to respect national parks and follow local traffic regulations.

"As enemy tanks raced ahead, the Japanese SDF would have to wait until the light turned green," said Hiroshi Takaku, an independent political analyst.

More serious consequences of Japan's generally acknowledged weak crisis-response systems and governmental turf battles were on display during the 1995 Kobe earthquake, when it took days for help to arrive as hundreds died unnecessarily.

While most political watchers have focused on negotiations between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, the real political heavyweight in this equation was hundreds of miles away and a world apart.

"North Korea was definitely the biggest factor in the bills being passed now," said Koichi Funakoshi, law professor at Nagasaki University. "Core Japanese ideas of peace and risk have changed."

In the last couple of years, Japan's pacifist worldview has been jolted, first by Pyongyang's launch of a Taepodong missile over the main island in August 1998, then by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and most recently by North Korea's admission that it had abducted Japanese citizens and its claim that it has nuclear weapons.

Fumio Kyuma, acting policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, played a key role in forging a political compromise on what always has been an enormously controversial issue, political analysts said.

Faced with pressure from his own party to railroad the bills through, Kyuma reportedly argued that such an approach would undermine national unity should an emergency occur. This paved the way for the inclusion of opposition language that civil liberties be protected "to the utmost."

"It's ground-breaking to have reached an agreement on an issue considered taboo," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said this week.

But opponents were not reassured. "Lawmakers are murdering Japanese democracy," said Ken Takada, a member of a civic group called "Stop! Don't Revise the Constitution."

Even supporters concede the bills have flaws. The mandate is relatively clear if Japan faces a Cold War-style invasion but less clear on terrorist attacks where no state or invading force is involved.

Also somewhat vague is the exact definition of imminent danger, whether Japan could respond to a missile attack or spy ship and whether an invader must first touch Japanese soil, be in their planes and ships or simply consider an attack to activate the bills' provisions.

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