Japanese Self-Defense Force trapped in 'legal ambushes'

Imagine this scenario: Invading forces have hit the beaches and are driving inland. Yet, with bullets flying around them, defending Japanese troops cannot dig any trenches or remove trees for a better field of fire.

The reason? The land is privately owned, and they would be guilty of trespass if they did not wait for a direct expropriation order from the prime minister.

It is restrictions like this that military leaders say severely limit the ability of the Self-Defense Force to live up to its name.

In fact, the SDF is surrounded by such legal ambushes.

When the Americans arrived after World War II to disarm Japan, they insisted on a constitutional provision barring this country from ever again possessing the potential to wage war.

Even the Americans soon found the clause embarrassing, and it has been stretched to the limit ever since to justify Japan's possession of an 180,000 -man army and limited navy and air forces as its inherent right to defend itself from external aggression.

Amid the doubts about the constitutionality of the SDF, successive governments have hemmed the military in with strict laws ensuring tight civilian control.

Some of the generals in particular now feel these controls have reached nonsensical proportions. How, they ask, can their troops respond quickly to an invasion if they cannot move across private land without prior negotiated permission?

Tanks required to stop at every red traffic light en route to meet invading forces might get to the battlefield too late.

There is no point in the government's promising the United States to spend more on defense, while hobbling the military performance by irrelevant and outdated laws, the military argues.

The issue has reached parliament, where it is likely to become a major political battleground between a government anxious to improve the nation's lagging defense capability and opponents seeing a revival of prewar-style military domination in every move.

Parliament has just been supplied with a list of recommendations from the defense agency.

They include:

* Use of civilian land should be permitted upon an alert order being issued, not an order to go into immediate action as at present. The military would also like frontline commanders to have more scope to take immediate action rather than have to await a long, complicated civilian expropriation.

* The laws should be amended to allow the army to destroy structures and trees on expropriated land (with compensation to be paid later) to construct necessary defenses or create adequate fields of fire.

* A new law should be created to enable military units to pass through private farmland and passages without hindrance in the event of an emergency.

The military also want laws strengthened to allow them to immediately mobilize doctors, pilots, truck drivers, seamen, and construction workers, as well as commander trucks, planes, and ships to transport troops, food, and medicines.

Payments would be made for all such services, of course.

Even so, opposition parties like the Socialists and Communists -- long campaigners against the "unconstitutional" SDF --are bitterly opposed to the legal revisions, fearing it will increase military authority over the civilian population, leading to a situation like that of the 1930s.

The All-Japan Seamen's Union has also expressed strong opposition to the possibility of being dragged into a conflict.

Public opinion is divided.One of the strongest opponents is Tokuzo Makiminato , a local government leader on the southern island of Okinawa, whose civilian population suffered greatly in the cross fire between invading American marines and Japanese defenders. Okinawan cynics have claimed the Imperial Army in 1944 was determined to defend Okinawa "to the last civilian."

As a result of this experience, Makinamoto says the defense agency's latest proposals will "merely mean the people will again be sacrificed. If an enemy attacks, people should just surrender -- which is far better than getting killed in a war."

Similar sentiments have been expressed on Hokkaido, the northern island that would be the first hit by any Soviet invasion. But the government believes these represent a small minority, and that public opinion generally supports giving the SDF all the tools necessary to fight a defensive war.

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