The Bankruptcy of Civil-Military Relations in Japan

by Tsuneo Watanabe

Should Japan's constitution be revised in light of current geopolitical realities? An emerging debate over collective self-defense, a significant part of which suggests revising the constitution, is stirring controversy in Japan. Not surprisingly, some legislators still maintain that any revision of Article 9 (the famous "peace clause") can only lead to militarism and dictatorship. Implicit in this belief are profound misgivings regarding civilian control over the military. Indeed, since Japan's de facto rearmament in the 1950s, the Japanese Diet has been unable to develop effective mechanisms for civilian control and for maintaining stable civilmilitary relations.

The roots of this struggle, which lasted throughout the cold war and continue today, go back to the explosively divisive debate between conservatives and socialists over the constitutional legitimacy of maintaining Self-Defense Forces (SDF). When the Japan Social Democratic Party (JSDP), under socialist prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, in 1994 reversed its long-held stance regarding the unconstitutionality of the SDF, many anticipated a period of vigorous debate over Japan's future defense policy. Yet with the political environment in transition from a one-party, dominant regime to a coalition, many if not most legislators are more comfortable with handling civil-military issues under the so-called "1955 System" of political bargaining.

Political uncertainties have prodded many policymakers back into their familiar and comfortable--but totally ineffective--methods of policy planning. More often than not, inconsistent policy positions from hawks in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who in the past openly supported amending Article 9 and who are now trying to distance themselves from Ichiro Ozawa and his New Frontier Party's position of supporting the exercise of collective self-defense, are evident. Part of this inconsistency is the result of the conservative's attempts to maintain the current LDP-led coalition with the JSDP and the Sakigake. The end of the cold war and the political left's renunciation of its decades-old principle of the nonconstitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces have had little effect: in a politically unstable coalition government, it is still difficult for legislators to discuss military policy openly. The biggest loser in these developments has been the Japanese public, which is still largely clueless regarding the complexities of civil-military relations within Japan.


Effective civilian military control requires the understanding, from the legislators and from the public at large, of two important policy goals: the protection of citizens from uncontrolled or illintended military actions within the state and the protection of society from external military threats. Moreover, policymakers need to recognize that good policies can only come from public discussion on how to preserve and promote democratic governance in Japan. Yet neither the public nor its elected representatives share this basic interpretation of civilian military control. Most liberals equate civilian control of the military with the idea of resistance: either resisting increases in military spending or resisting efforts at more narrow defense or contingency planning. Their analyses of civilian control over the military do not consider the fundamental question of how to defend Japan from regional and global threats. Conservatives, on the other hand, along with the bureaucracy, have decided that the issue of civilian control simply means ensuring that Defense Agency bureaucrats--in their role as civil servants--have administrative oversight over the uniformed officers of the SDF. The net effect of both these perspectives has been a kind of black box from which Japan's security policies somehow emerge. Both the process and the results are at best opaque to the general public and nebulous in the Diet itself.

The source of this obscurity can be traced to a series of Diet debates over civil-military relations in the 1970s and 1980s. The fierce cold war debate between the LDP and the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) over maintaining Japan's Self-Defense Forces turned the issue of civilian control of the military into a powerful bargaining tool within the Diet. A noted political scientist, Katsuya Hirose, identified a pattern of negotiation between the LDP and the JSP on civil-military relations as a crucial component of the "1955 system," an observation with which many political scientists now agree.1 The 1955 system essentially represents a means of political accommodation that had the LDP remain as the governing majority party while the second largest party, the JSP, permanently assumed the role of the primary opposition party. The JSP under this system was thus limited to criticizing LDP policies in the Diet but could do nothing more because of the LDP's unshakable majority. But in a country where consensus is given the priority it is in Japan, political opposition and prolonged pubic debate make the Diet's job of passing new legislation and the budget very difficult. The Japanese public had some sympathy with this role of the JSP; the party often received the support of LDP voters who were frustrated with the LDP's conservative stances. But the JSP found little public support for its Marxist ideology.

The JSP's refusal to discuss civilian military control issues because of their opposition on constitutional grounds to the maintenance of the SDF created a massive policy void; the result was an absence of rational debate over defense issues. The JSP faced a Hobson's choice of sorts: if they critiqued the LDP's defense plans in terms of their security efficacy, they were implicitly legitimating the existence of the SDF.

The JSP was adamantly opposed to the US-Japan military alliance, but failed to offer any realistic alternative to the SDF in terms of defending Japan's national borders and interests. Whereas the government and the LDP dismissed the JSP's interpretation as wildly unrealistic, they in turn did not want to engage in a heated public debate over military issues while the general public continued to hold deep, antimilitary sentiments leftover from World War II. Their fear proved to be warranted in light of the series of nationwide anti-government protests over the revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty.

The most effective political tactic for the opposition parties, it turned out, was to prevent any debate over security issues. This was achieved largely by stalling the passage of the budget in the Diet committees. The unfortunate result was that debate over military issues was framed in ideological and legalistic rhetoric rather than through detailed discussion over prominent security issues. As long as the constitutionality of the SDF was at issue while the Supreme Court vacillated on its interpretation, any debate in the Diet related to civil-military issues resulted in benign government statements promising strict civilian control. Political leaders could not find the courage to delve into the nature of civil-military relations--how to improve them, how to set standards, how to generally raise the level of discourse surrounding them--as long as such high levels of ambiguity over the fate of the SDF both in the higher courts and with the public at large existed. As a consequence, the LDP and the bureaucracy pursued military policy in a "black box," free from evaluation by anyone, be it the opposition or the public.

An early example of the "hollowing out" phenomenon was the 1963 Mitsuya Study, in which members of the Joint Staff Council proposed that legislation permitting Japan to respond to an emergency situation may be necessary should a military crisis on the Korean Peninsula spread to the mainland. In 1965, a Socialist Party member in the Lower House Budget Committee revealed the existence of the study and criticized it as an example of the eroding civilian control of the military. The bureaucracy and the LDP defended the Mitsuya Study as harmless to civilian military control because it was not a defense contingency plan; nor were SDF officials intending to introduce legislation. A joint report (by the LDP, the JSP, and the Democratic Socialist Party) was issued, stating that the SDF required greater civilian oversight. This report, however, failed to give any concrete proposals on how to improve civilian military control. More important, it not only prevented serious contingency planning by the SDF; it also had a chilling effect on bureaucrats in the Defense Agency and those working with the Diet in regard to any future contingency planning.2

It was, however, the 1978 dismissal of General Hiromi Kurisu, chairman of the Joint Staff Council, for "making controversial remarks about civilian control" that unequivocally demonstrated that political manipulation of civil-military relations was not practiced solely by the left. General Kurisu had mentioned at a press conference that the commanders of the SDF might need to take "supra-legal action" as a result of the absence of legal guidelines for exercising selfdefense rights in the event of a military contingency. The Director General of the Defense Agency at the time, political strongman Shin Kanemaru, dismissed Kurisu, explaining that his comments had created a "misunderstanding" about civilian control of the armed forces. Yet that misunderstanding was never made clear. Nor was Kurisu's concern over the need for legal guidelines addressed. And unlike the Mitsuya Study controversy, Kurisu's dismissal was initiated by the LDP. More important, it thus prevented the issue from gaining political momentum from the Socialists and Democratic Socialists at a time when LDP control of the Diet was based on a slim majority. This was just one early example of Shin Kanemaru's mastery of kokutaiseiji (Diet management politics).

Controversy arose again in 1981 when another military officer, General Goro Takeda, was forced to retire for challenging long-standing official defense policies. General Takeda had acknowledged that the SDF must exist within three separate frameworks: that established by the constitution, the "Yoshida doctrine" of exclusive self-defense, and Japan's three principles of nuclear nonproliferation. Takeda's major blunder was in publicly stating that much of the framework was based on the uninformed debate of pure politics, and thus flawed. He argued that a literal interpretation of Japan's exclusive self-defense policy would fail to protect Japan's territorial interests. His criticism was not about civilian control of the military; he was concerned about how politics seemed to outweigh strategy in the policy-planning process. He also argued that the planning behind Japan's defense expenditures was questionable because it never seemed to consider the SDF's actual capabilities. And he objected to the government's interpretation of military conscription as unconstitutional. His comments--breathtaking in their clarity and force--sent the opposition parties into a 24-hour boycott of the Diet budget committee hearings.

This budget-stalling tactic worked yet again, and the LDP and opposition parties worked out a compromise on three points: 1) General Takeda would not be dismissed, but he would be forced "to retire"; 2) the prime minister would affirm that he fully supports strong civilian control of the military; and 3) the prime minister and Director General of the Defense Agency would issue statements apologizing for Takeda's comments.

Yet unlike General Kurisu's case, General Takeda's comments were defended by several cabinet ministers and Diet members, largely because control of the Diet was firmly in the hands of the LDP at the time. No new policies on how to improve civil-military relations emerged; what the Japanese public got was a government statement promising to do so in the future.

The crucial point is that both the right and the left wings of Japanese politics have been irresponsible in their approach to civilmilitary issues, which has always been in terms of political gain rather than of national interests. The left was inexcusably irresponsible for their opposition to the SDF without ever articulating any realistic alternative to protect Japan from security threats. Yet the various conservative governments utterly failed to explain to anyone what they were doing or why. In the end, both sides showed their ignorance on the issue by failing to lay a healthy foundation for solid civil-military relations through their "hollowing out" of any real discussion on defense policy. The mass media and other institutions such as the Nikkyoso (Japan Teachers Union) played key roles in perpetuating the absence of public debate over military issues, but an examination of their roles is entirely outside the scope of this essay.

The bureaucracy and conservative legislators from all parties should realize that military planning is simply not possible without open discussion, An open, public discussion on military issues will inevitably cause some awkward discomfort in the public at large; it may even result in some minor social unrest. But it needs to happen anyway. One current example of this need concerns the plan to relocate some of Okinawa's military facilities to other Japanese localities. And informed consent of this move must be based on a solid understanding among Japanese citizens of the reasons why US military bases in Japan are still in the nation's interest. A lack of public discussion on this issue will result in the Japanese electorate being either misinformed on or uninterested in civil-military relations when, in all likelihood, this subject will emerge as a major issue after the next election.

Institution building is necessary for laying the basic foundation of civil-military relationship. Both the Diet and the prime minister's office should invite military specialists who can give relatively unbiased assessments (in terms of strategy, finance, and technology) of the government's defense policies. Opposition parties, moreover, must be able to evaluate defense policies on their own if they want their criticism to be effective. Furthermore, Japanese society should incorporate military and strategic studies into its public education system, especially at the university and graduate levels. Politically independent, well-endowed public policy institutions on security issues should be created that could offer alternative policy solutions that could incorporate recommendations from the Diet, bureaucracy, industry, and the public at large. Journalists and editors should educate themselves on security matters and strategic concepts. What is dangerous to any democratic society is not the open discussion of military affairs, but the shielding of the public from uncomfortable decisions that need to be made about the society's security.


  1. See Katsuya Hirose's "Bunkan-tosei kara shimin-tosei he"(From Bureaucratic to Civilian Control), Sekai, August 1991, and his Kanryo to Gunjin (Bureaucrats and Soldiers), Iwanami, 1989.
  2. See Nishioka, Akira, Gendai no Civilian Control (Modern Civilian Control), Chishikisha, 1988, pp.263-78.

Tsuneo Watanabe is Visiting Scholar at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C.