Toru Hanai / Reuters Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews members of the Self-Defense Force, July 2017.

Japan's Misadventure in South Sudan

How a Botched Peacekeeping Mission Is Undermining Abe

On a narrow street in Ogikubo, a western suburb of Tokyo, the shouts and laughter of passing schoolchildren in matching uniforms and yellow caps interrupted conversation inside the ground-floor office of Kenji Isezaki, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Although not far from the bright lights and crushing crowds of the megacity’s commercial center, Ogikubo is a rather subdued neighborhood. When I visited in May, its calm and relaxed residential atmosphere was a sharp contrast to the political rancor that was building in the capital’s government quarter, Nagatacho.

At the start of this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looked strong. He enjoyed high public approval ratings of nearly 60 percent and was expected to handily win national elections in 2018. Some even suggested he would become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history. But within a matter of months, Abe and his cabinet were beset by two major scandals. The first involved the prime minister and his wife, Akie, who came under public scrutiny for having allegedly arranged the sale of public land to a right-wing school at a heavily discounted price. The second concerned Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, a rising star in Abe’s cabinet, accused of covering up military reports from Japanese peacekeepers serving in South Sudan. The reports described fighting that potentially would have rendered the peacekeepers’ presence illegal under Japanese law, and the accusations against Inada would ultimately lead to her resignation in late July.

The Inada scandal was particularly striking. At a time of high regional tensions stemming from North Korea’s increasingly menacing missile program, it was a minor peacekeeping role in a distant African country that came to threaten Abe’s plans for expanding Japan's contribution to regional and global security. The prime minister has an ambitious agenda to amend Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which renounces war, by 2020, and increase the flexibility of his country's military to face down Pyongyang. But in recent months Abe has found himself on the defensive, largely thanks to his administration’s handling of the Japanese peacekeeping engagement in South Sudan. Isezaki explained why.

“The Japanese refuse to understand what war is,” he said. “They think war is what we did in World War II. But that specific war won’t happen again, it is prohibited, and the Japanese need to understand that war is war, even in self-defense.” For Isezaki, that is, Japanese society is not yet willing to accept the costs of war, and the country’s law is still poorly equipped for expanding military activities overseas.  Rather, Japan has maintained a pacifist identity, born in the aftermath of its crimes in World War II and hardened in the 70 years since the postwar adoption of its U.S.-drafted constitution. Article 9 of that constitution outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes and bans Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) from engaging in offensive military actions. As a result, in Japan even minor overseas missions to support global peace and security—such as UN peacekeeping—must be handled with extreme political sensitivity.

Toru Hanai / Reuters Defense Minister Tomomi Inada is surrounded by journalists while leaving Abe's residence in Tokyo, July 2017.

COLLECTIVE SELF-DEFENSE

In 1992, Japan passed a controversial peacekeeping law that, for the first time, opened the door for SDF participation in UN missions. In the following years, Japanese peacekeeping contingents went on to serve in Cambodia, East Timor, Haiti, and, more recently, South Sudan. But the Japanese constitution and the public’s strong aversion to conflict have limited the SDF’s level of involvement. Among other constraints, the 1992 law stated that Japanese peacekeepers could be deployed only once a cease-fire was already in place and could use their weapons only in self-defense. As a result, Japan typically contributes engineers rather than soldiers. These engineers have been part of the so-called enabler forces on UN missions, involved in support activities in the rear, such as building roads and UN facilities. The Japanese “choose the safest mission, the safest place in the mission, and the safest period of the mission,” Isezaki told me.

Since coming into office, Abe has promised to change his country’s military approach. In 2015, he used his parliamentary majority to pass bills reinterpreting Article 9 to allow the SDF to participate in “collective self-defense,” which allows Japanese forces to come to the aid of allies under attack.

From an outsider’s perspective, Abe’s new security legislation was only an incremental loosening of what were still very tight restrictions on the SDF. But to many in political opposition and the Japanese public, which was closely divided on the reform, it was a first move to rewriting the constitution. National debate over the new bills brought rare protests out on the streets and led to fisticuffs between legislators during the official vote in the Diet. In late 2016, the 11th rotation of Japanese peacekeepers to South Sudan became the first ever to be deployed under the new legislation. The East African country would soon become a major test of Abe’s reform.

SCANDAL IN SOUTH SUDAN

A Japanese engineering contingent of 350 troops had been serving in South Sudan since 2011, the year the country was founded. The troops were part of the UN peacekeeping mission’s mandate to help South Sudan’s fledgling government foster security and development; specifically, the Japanese were tasked with building roads in the capital, Juba, as they had previously done in East Timor and elsewhere in the world. Japan’s ties with the United States had also been influential in Tokyo’s decision to send peacekeepers to South Sudan. In 2010, local protests over the relocation of a U.S. air base from one part of the Japanese island of Okinawa to another had brought friction between then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and U.S. President Barack Obama. Noda hoped the peacekeepers would smooth things over by supporting one of Washington’s main foreign policy goals in Africa at the time—seeing South Sudan prosper. A Japanese official I spoke with in 2013 told me that Tokyo had largely backed the UN peacekeeping mission “to line up with U.S. policy.” In Japan, even minor overseas missions to support global peace and security must be handled with extreme political sensitivity.

But events on the ground in South Sudan did not cooperate with Washington’s lofty ambitions. In December 2013, civil war broke out in the heart of the capital and rapidly spread to different parts of the country, killing tens of thousands. What started as a power struggle between forces allied with President Salva Kiir and followers of former Vice President Riek Machar later fragmented into many localized conflicts involving multiple armed factions. The resulting humanitarian crisis forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to seek shelter in UN peacekeeping bases.

As the conflict took hold of the country, Japanese peacekeepers went from nation building to building refugee camps. A cease-fire was signed soon after the fighting began, and in August 2015 the two sides reached a peace deal. These allowed the Japanese government to claim that its troops’ presence in South Sudan was in accordance with Japan’s peacekeeping law. But as violence resumed, the legitimacy of the mission came into question.

By July 2016, fighting rocked Juba once again. Images of bodies strewn on the roadside and civilians flooding into UN bases made it increasingly difficult for the Abe administration to deny that South Sudan’s cease-fire was crumbling. During the violence, several Rwandan peacekeepers were critically injured near the Tomping base, where the Japanese engineering contingent was based. Japanese peacekeepers sent home military reports of active combat, offering potential evidence that conditions in South Sudan amounted to a violation of the peacekeeping law. Japan’s Ministry of Defense allegedly first tried to cover up these reports, claiming that the logs had been lost, but later the information resurfaced when a request was filed under Japan’s Information Disclosure Law; with a whistleblower claiming that Inada deliberately tried to keep the logs hidden from public eye.

TROUBLE ON THE HOME FRONT

The scandal spelled trouble for Abe. The Japanese public was already sharply divided on the SDF’s participation in South Sudan, with protests in Tokyo calling for its withdrawal. Now with the cover-up scandal, South Sudan was rousing heavy criticism from Japan’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party, which called for Defense Minister Inada’s resignation. Rather than continue the mission, Abe announced Japan’s withdrawal in March.

When I visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo a few months later, an official denied that South Sudan’s insecurity was the reason for Japan’s exit. “Japan contributed to peace and security in South Sudan,” the official told me, insisting that “the situation [there] is stable.” This echoed a provisional statement released by the cabinet office in March, which highlighted the start of a national dialogue in South Sudan and the deployment of a UN regional protection force as evidence of the country’s progress. When I pointed out that Japan’s position did not square well with the fact of ongoing fighting in the country, the official told me the decision was not based on “what you see on the ground, but how domestic law interprets the events.” That is, as long as the Japanese government could claim that the warring sides intended to hold the cease-fire, then Japan’s presence was legitimate—even if there was still violence on the ground.

Issei Kato / Reuters Protestors in Tokyo form a peace sign to mark the ten-year anniversary of September 11, September 2011.

It was political rather than strategic calculations that led Abe to exit South Sudan. In combination with the scandal over the right-wing school, which was occurring at roughly the same time, the South Sudan affair threatened to cripple Abe politically. The danger faced by Japanese peacekeepers was already a hot-button issue, and the reported cover-up only stoked the political fires. As one senior government official told me, “Abe was risking his political life if a peacekeeper was killed. The opposition would ask him to take responsibility, and maybe even to resign.”

In particular, South Sudan had the potential to split the ruling coalition between Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, the Komeito party. Key constituencies of Komeito, a pacifist party, were uneasy about Japan’s role in South Sudan. Losing their support at the national level threatened to upend Abe’s security reform. The best-case scenario for the prime minister was that South Sudan would slow but not halt the rewriting of Japan’s constitution; the worst-case scenario was that South Sudan would help bring down his government. Leaving South Sudan thus required little thought. By the spring, it had become a political liability at home, and since Donald Trump entered the White House, it no longer served to safeguard ties with Washington. Trump hardly had a position on South Sudan, let alone a vision for U.S. foreign policy in Africa.

THE FUTURE OF ARTICLE 9

By July, Abe’s approval rates had fallen to around 30 percent—the lowest since he regained power in December 2012. In order to stop the bleeding, Inada offered her resignation over the South Sudan scandal, and Abe elected to reshuffle his cabinet soon thereafter. In retrospect, his moves to reinterpret Article 9 may have been a grave political fumble. Further security reform is now in jeopardy, and Japan’s pacifist ethos remains a formidable political hurdle.

The South Sudan scandal demonstrates that even in the face of the danger posed by North Korea’s missile program, Japanese leaders continue to fear public backlash against overseas military adventures. Barring a direct attack against Japan, its political leaders will need to regain the public’s trust and strongly justify the country’s national interest in overseas military operations.

Neither has the reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution always served SDF forces well. As demonstrated in South Sudan, it is not possible to expect SDF serving abroad to provide the appropriate interpretation of fighting for political consumption at home. If Abe intends on rewriting Japan’s constitution in the coming years, he will need to look inward and develop a broader consensus for the move, across political party lines and Japanese society.

The debate over rewriting Article 9 of the Japanese constitution is far from over. Deep fissures remain in Japanese society over whether or not to expand the country’s military activities beyond self-defense. It may still be up to future generations to come to terms with Japan’s history of wartime aggression, realize that it is unlikely to repeat such offenses, and ultimately redefine its role in regional and global security.  

“Article 9 is a religion in Japan,” Isezaki told me as the commotion of passing schoolchildren died down outside his office. “It is Japanese peace, and before we can debate it, we must change the Japanese definition of war.” 

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