Japan's first military communications satellite takes off amid defense debate

Kirameki-2's launch is the latest in a series of measures underscoring a shift in Japan's security policies. While the changes have provoked public debate for their perceived abandonment of the Self Defense Force's historical role, some observers argue the changes are overdue. 

Yu Nakajima/Kyodo News/AP
Japan’s H-IIA rocket lifts off, carrying the Japanese Defense Ministry's first communications satellite, Kirameki-2, from the Tanegashima Space Center in Minamitane on Tanegashima Island.

Japan's first military communications satellite entered orbit as planned on Tuesday, replacing an outdated civilian satellite and continuing the Japanese military's path toward a new, more active course.

Hitching a ride aboard an H-IIA rocket, the Kirameki-2 is the first of three "X-band" military satellites to replace three aging civilian ones. The new trio, are expected to not only improve the capacity and range of the country’s communications network but also to speed up its response to potential military threats.

The satellite launch comes during a gradual expansion in the role of Japan's military, as conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe eyes challenges from an increasingly bold China, the Korean peninsula, and a new US administration, some of whose early comments suggest central aspects of Pacific security may be up for debate. But the changes have raised controversy in Japan, where pacifism in the wake of World War II has helped define foreign policy for decades.

A variety of measures have modified that position, from new military exercises to the prospect of constitutional reform. “The launch is consistent with an evolution of Japan’s security policies to take a more proactive stance that goes back decades,” Zach Cooper, a fellow with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

Such changes include slight-but-steady increases in the defense budget, a move to relax the prohibition on military activities in space, the training of amphibious troops similar to America’s Marines, and most controversially, a law re-interpreting part of the constitution.

The Kirameki-2 could be used both at home and abroad to coordinate troop activities and facilitate communication between the land, sea, and air branches of the country's Self Defense Force, State Minister of Defense Kenji Wakamiya explained to the Japan Broadcasting Corporation.

Since Japan's defeat in World War II, when its current constitution was drawn up under the Allied occupation, Article 9 has ensured a close adherence to pacifism, asserting that the Japanese people will “forever renounce war as a sovereign right,” and that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”  

Rather, the various branches of the SDF were established solely for Japan’s protection: armed and carefully trained, but permitted to fire only under strictly defined self-defense situations. The restrictions are so strong that the SDF has reportedly never fired a shot in combat conditions.

That record could change, however, in light of a recent interpretation widening the definition of self defense. A full-fledged constitutional revision would require a two-thirds majority in the parliament, followed by a referendum. In 2015, however, the Liberal Democratic Party, led by Abe, passed a law granting the SDF the right to "collective self defense." Simply put, Japanese forces are now legally permitted to use force abroad to come to the aid of an ally, such as the United States, even without being directly attacked themselves.

However, that power comes with strict limitations: The measures are permissible only in the situation that Japan believes its survival is at stake, and no alternative actions exist. Nevertheless, the new law is deeply polarizing because it is perceived as a strong departure from the historical position.  

While a poll in the conservative newspaper Sankei Shimbun found 57 percent of respondents thought the laws “necessary,” the more liberal Mainichi Shimbun found 45 percent think the law unconstitutional.

Some citizens are bothered by the perceived lack of public debate, and the sense that, by enacting a law to reinterpret Article 9, rather than changing the constitution itself, the government made the change in a less than forthright way.

“Maybe we need more military power to protect ourselves, but we want to avoid fighting as much as we can,” Osaka resident Takuya Sawamoto tells the Monitor. “Just changing the law without changing the constitution feels weird and unclear. I think we should talk about all the options and change the constitution, if it’s necessary, with a referendum.”

Some legal experts, too, have protested the perceived work-around. "Even hawkish lawyers have criticized this for not following the correct constitutional procedures," Masato Yamanaka, a lawyer and member of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, which has issued a number of statements against the new legislation, told the Monitor when the law was first passed

Some experts in the security community, however, view the changes as overdue. In the face of increased friction with China over the ownership of islands in the South China Sea and the unpredictability of North Korea, Mr. Cooper thinks Japan’s shifting security stance is a “natural evolution given Japan’s history.”

With the legacy of World War II fading into history, Prime Minister Abe may want a "normal country" capable of shouldering the burden of its own defense, Cooper suggests, rather than relying on America. Though the changes have provoked emotional debate in Japan, he points out that the increases in Japan’s defense spending are modest when compared with China’s and warns against over-interpreting the changes, calling them "evolutionary, not revolutionary."

And as Abe slowly updates Japan's defense policies, all eyes are on the Trump administration. The possibility that he could follow through on his comments that America be “prepared to walk” away from Japan security negotiations is making some people nervous that the future of Japan's military could be decided for them. 

“If Trump tries to break the Japan-America alliance, I think Japan will make a major amendment to the constitution and move to strengthen the army,” long-time Japanese high school teacher Yumi Azuma tells the Monitor.

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