By Darlene Onuorah, Contributing Writer

On July 8, 2020, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono told the Japanese House of Representatives’ Security Committee that a preemptive first strike on an enemy’s missile base or launch pad would be acceptable if an enemy were likely to launch a missile attack on Japanese soil. This was in response to lawmaker Go Shinohara’s question of whether a preemptive strike on an enemy’s missile system in the booster phase would be unconstitutional per Article 9. Kono responded: “It would not be unconstitutional to strike an enemy launch pad or base before a missile launch, instead of waiting for the missile’s booster phase.” This is just the latest development in Japan’s spurning of its past defensive posture in favor of a more offense-oriented one. 

The nation’s pacifist constitution, specifically Article 9, constrains Japan’s defense policy; the clause prohibits the use of force in solving international disputes, the acquisition of military forces and other means of war potential, as well as the right of state belligerency. However, Japan’s establishment of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) was done to satisfy the inherent right to self-defense, which according to government interpretation is not denied by the constitution and is allowed by Article 51 of the Charter of United Nations. Under Japan’s Legislation for Peace and Security, the use of force is permitted under three conditions: 1) when an armed attack is against Japan or foreign nations that could threaten Japan’s survival; 2) if there are no other ways to deter such an attack; and 3) the action taken is limited to the minimum extent necessary.

Kono’s statement on Japanese defense posture seems to contradict Article 9 principles, Article 51 of the UN Charter, as well as the conditions surrounding the use of force. By engaging in a preemptive strike against an enemy prior to its missile’s booster phase, the use of force in this scenario potentially violates constitutional and international law. On the contrary, Kono specifies that the strike would be done out of self-defense, ensuring the safety of Japanese territory through a determination of the enemy’s intentions, means of attack, and international affairs landscape. However, the Japanese government deems the use of force for self-defense as being reserved for dire circumstances; the threat or likelihood of an armed attack does not warrant a response. Many see Kono’s statement as controversial because it bypasses political and legal boundaries of force, paints Japan as an aggressor, and increases the potential for war. 

The political debate surrounding acquisition of first-strike capable weapons is not new, and Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has increasingly pushed for this capability in order to combat North Korea’s nuclear weapons advancements, as well as China’s growing military presence. On August 4, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that Japan’s National Security Council will deliberate the purchase of first-strike capable weapons to heighten deterrence strategies. The recent discontinuation of the U.S.-made Aegis Ashore missile defense system, citing financial and collateral damage concerns, has spurred discussion on how to better equip existing Aegis destroyers that can defend against foreign missile threats, as these systems contain superior radar and interceptive abilities. Although the Aegis Ashore systems may be reinstalled, establishing first-strike capability in their place has been a sought-after option by the government. Still, a preemptive strike is debated to be an offensive capability, and utilizing it seems to go against the nation’s framework for use of force.

Over the last two decades, Japan has been able to change its defense policy without compromising Article 9. Japan’s shift away from pacifism in the 21st century is not unfounded. Japan faces a strategic environment of Chinese military expansionism, North Korean nuclear testing, and a resurgence in Russian presence in East Asia. Beyond these direct threats, Japan faces a deterioration of relations with its closest regional ally, South Korea, as well as pressure from the United States for a more robust security presence with greater defense spending. The latter actually influenced Japan to enact the Legislation for Peace and Security, which expanded the SDF’s peacekeeping roles for international military conflicts, giving them the right to exercise force for collective self-defense through Article 9 reinterpretation. These developments have increasingly strengthened Japan’s defense arsenal and brought about a record-breaking defense budget. 

Constitutional revision to amend Article 9, in relation to its second paragraph on war potential and state belligerency, has been at the forefront of the LDP’s agenda since its 1955 conception. Prime Minister Abe has made it his mission to revise Article 9 to formally include the SDF in order to eliminate speculation that the forces are unconstitutional. The potential revision would keep the aforementioned paragraph and add a paragraph to expand defense initiatives for the SDF. Defense Minister Kono has previously commented on this issue of constitutional interpretation for self-defense, echoing larger sentiments of the LDP that the SDF requires proper acknowledgement, in order to eliminate its uncertainty in deployment. However, this move continues to be unpopular amongst a pacifist-leaning society, lacks sufficient parliamentary support, and due to political scandals, has been delayed for the rest of 2020. As Prime Minister Abe recently announced he will be stepping down, the prospect of Article 9 revision has now gone out of his reach. The LDP will hold an election on September 14 to determine Abe’s successor, who will serve out the rest of his term until September 2021; the possible successor is expected to have a close relationship with Abe, therefore inheriting his policy tasks and goals. Front runner Yoshihide Suga, who has been a close aide to Abe since the start of his prime ministerial career, is anticipated to continue Abe’s priority of gaining first-strike capability, amongst other objectives. However, Article 9 revision is undesirable to both Suga, and Fumio Kishida, who is another notable candidate. The chosen interim Prime Minister will likely focus on dealing with Abe’s more pressing concerns, such as his handling of COVID-19 and its impact on the economy

In order to mitigate controversy and political opposition, Japan’s National Security Council must clearly define what a preemptive strike means for self-defense and what it would entail. As enemy intentions will be determined by Japan prior to a preemptive strike, so should their own intentions be rightfully determined. The likelihood of a missile launch by North Korea, for instance, could be perceived as a dire circumstance for Japan, thus warranting preemption as a defensive measure if thoroughly explained. Furthermore, if a missile strike on U.S. territory is imminent, could Japan launch a preemptive strike on the attacking country, under collective self-defense? The council should assess the legal and political implications of obtaining first-strike capability and be transparent with key allies, especially the United States, to gain approval. Above all, there has to be direct reassurance that this action would not violate the constitution, as there is sure to be domestic backlash.

If Aegis Ashore is still on the table, though an expensive endeavor, Japan should appropriately refurbish the system to gain successful strike capabilities and take away some of that burden from the United States; this primarily involves placing the missile launchers and radars in more remote, yet strategic areas near the coastline to monitor foreign missile threats, and optimizing missile booster separation. The United States has pushed Japan for greater security contributions and has supported Article 9 reinterpretation in the past, with regard to the Legislation for Peace and Security. As the international security environment becomes more complex and conflictual, combined with pressure from the U.S., perhaps this will compel Japan to revise Article 9 in the near future.

Ever since Japan rearmed itself with the SDF, many of its defensive pursuits have been speculated as offensive and unconstitutional. Even so, the option for a preemptive strike does highlight a possible offensive shift in the nation’s traditionally defensive posture and prompts debate over whether or not the move is supported by the constitution.

Darlene Onuorah is an incoming second-year graduate student at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She is pursuing her MA in International Affairs, with a concentration in U.S. foreign policy. Her foci include U.S.-Japan relations, Japanese defense policy, East Asian politics and security, as well as great power competition.