[rev_slider alias="blog-post-header-long-title"][/rev_slider]

Feb 23, 2017 | Commentary

I. Security Sector Reform and Japan

Head to any major intersection or train station in Japan, and you will likely encounter one of the country’s 6,000 koban police mini-stations.  These police boxes, generally housing 2-3 officers on rotating shifts, go largely unnoticed by passers-by, except when they stop in to ask for directions or to look at the district map.  Yet these innocuous koban also play a key role in police vigilance, crime deterrence, community relations, and rapid response, forming a cornerstone of Japan’s successful postwar reform of its security sector.

This unobtrusive manifestation of community policing is a symbol of Japan’s larger potential as a leader of international support to nationally owned security sector reform (SSR) processes.  Indeed, perhaps no country has experienced SSR more profoundly than Japan after World War II, where the secret police and rampaging military of the war years gave way to community policing and a Self-Defense Force with strong civilian control and constitutional limits on the use of force abroad.  Japan has a powerful story to tell.

An expanded SSR support agenda focused on strengthening the professionalism, accountability, and governance of the security sector in fragile states fits neatly within Japanese policy priorities.  Japan promotes the rule of law as a pillar of its foreign policy,[1] strongly emphasizes institution building in its UN activities,[2] and vigorously backs the human security concept.  Many of these policies are realized through active participation in the UN, where Japan is the second-largest contributor to the regular budget and the third-largest provider of assessed contributions to peacekeeping.[3]

However, SSR as a discipline remains largely unknown in Japan.  While Japan has provided component-level support to international SSR-related activities based on the priorities described above, it has not yet engaged in transformative sector-wide approaches to bolster strategic governance and oversight.  Japan should align its experiences and priorities under a new SSR platform offering guidance, best practices, and technical and legislative assistance.  This would promote Japan’s diplomatic and UN policy objectives while simultaneously allowing it to assume a position of leadership as an authoritative, non-Western champion of SSR.


II. Building on Existing Experience and Capacities

Police and Justice
As mentioned above, Japan’s justice sector demonstrates the positive results of what was a massive postwar SSR process, albeit not labelled as such at the time.  Since then, the koban model has been successful enough to have been exported by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the government’s international assistance arm, as well as by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, to both developed and developing countries.  In January 2016, Atul Khare, UN Under-Secretary-General for Field Support, praised the effectiveness of the koban system and Japanese police manuals, both of which have been employed in Timor-Leste.[4]  Certainly, there are limitations to Japan’s justice model, including its overly powerful prosecutors, indefensibly high conviction rates, and overreliance by police on individual confessions.  Yet the positive aspects of the postwar reform of Japan’s justice sector constitute a model worth spreading.

Leadership through an international SSR platform with a major focus on koban/community policing and police accountability standards would greatly benefit recipient states, while also helping Japan to offer more effective police participation in UN rule of law and peacekeeping activities than through traditional patrols.  The Japanese public has been extremely sensitive to deaths on mission ever since the killing of a Japanese police officer dispatched to the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1993.  The Japanese police have not joined peacekeeping operations in meaningful numbers since then, despite their wealth of knowledge and experience.  Expanded Japanese support to local efforts to enhance police oversight, professionalism, and community relations could strengthen Japanese leadership in this field while also largely avoiding political sensitivities at home.

A Japanese SSR leadership role holds similar potential in the defense sector.  Japan’s constitution renounces war, and its highly capable Self-Defense Force (SDF) today is subject to full civilian control with an emphasis on public service.  It is increasingly associated domestically with disaster assistance, especially following Japan’s March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

At the same time, SDF contributions to UN peacekeeping face limitations under their current modality.  The SDF participates in peacekeeping by way of Japan’s 1992 Act on Cooperation for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations and Other Operations (“PKO Act”), but with legal restraints that have traditionally curtailed the use of force except in self-defense.[5]  Even a 2015 reinterpretation of the constitution and corresponding new security legislation, which enable Japanese peacekeepers to come to the rescue of partners under fire (presumably by using force), do not enable robust protection of civilians tasks which are increasingly part of peacekeeping mandates.  Major political challenges exist as well.  Passage of the 2015 legislation was deeply unpopular domestically, putting conservatives who implemented the change in the curious position of trumpeting the SDF’s new rescue capabilities while simultaneously assuring the public that Japanese peacekeepers will be in safe locations and unlikely to use these very capabilities.[6]

Given this context, Japanese peacekeeping personnel have long been considered risk-averse.  Much of Japan’s role in peacekeeping has been in engineering and logistical support, together with a growing focus on providing training and technology to less capable troop-contributing countries through triangular partnerships with the UN.  This configuration alone is not ideal for achieving Japanese policy interests as they relate to the rule of law, institution building, and human security.  The ongoing deployment of several hundred Japanese SDF engineering personnel to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is a case in point.  Japan wishes to be seen as a proactive contributor to the UN and to peacekeeping, but UNMISS’ priorities have shifted from state building to protection of civilians since the dramatic deterioration of the security situation beginning in December 2013, leaving Japanese personnel facing dangers for which they are ill-prepared.

As a whole, Japan’s defense sector represents a positive model that demonstrates the results of governance-focused SSR efforts.  At the same time, changes in peacekeeping tasks, together with political and legal restrictions, make troop contributions a less compelling means of Japanese involvement despite the SDF’s achievements.  An SSR leadership role offers Japan a way forward. The SDF has much to offer in the SSR realm based on its own history and development.  This could include guidance on best practices and support aimed at improving the professionalism and command and control structures of the defense sectors in fragile states.


III. A New Support Platform

A new Japanese SSR platform would align closely with Japan’s existing diplomatic and UN policy priorities, maintaining its international engagement and avoiding the limitations described above, all as a compelling non-Western advocate.

While Japan is not well-positioned to oversee narrow train-and-equip exercises nor to deploy personnel to increasingly dangerous missions, it can be a prime implementing leader for sustained, sector-wide reform, as outlined in Security Council resolution 2151 (2014) on SSR.  Japan’s abovementioned experience, geopolitical alignment, and capacity would enable it to support fragile and post-conflict states in the security legislation drafting process, national security dialogues, security sector public expenditure reviews, enhanced civilian oversight, and community policing development.

This governance-focused SSR platform would promote people-centered security through more democratic and resilient institutions, all in support of a sustaining peace agenda.  These interventions could be made through long-term assistance to national security sectors, including through Japan’s membership on the Peacebuilding Commission, strong leadership in the UN Group of Friends of SSR and other international fora, and sustained bilateral engagement.  Japan should seize this leadership opportunity.


Christopher Sedgwick [christopher.sedgwick@tufts.edu] is a researcher and analyst specializing in UN affairs, Japanese foreign policy, and security sector reform. He is a graduate of Princeton University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and was also a Japanese Ministry of Education Scholar at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate Schools for Law and Politics. He has authored case studies for an African Union-commissioned report on peacekeeping from the World Peace Foundation focusing on conflict drivers, peace processes, and SSR, and previously served as Special Assistant for Political Affairs at the Consulate-General of Japan in San Francisco.


[1] Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diplomatic Bluebook 2016, p. 155; available from: http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/other/bluebook.

[2] Statement by Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida at the United Nations Security Council Open Debate on Peacebuilding (28 July 2016); available from: http://www.un.emb-japan.go.jp/statements/Kishida072816.html.

[3] See UN document A/70/331/Add.1; Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diplomatic Bluebook 2016, p. 202.

[4] Statement by United Nations Under-Secretary-General Atul Khare, “Fostering Future Leaders in International Peace Cooperation,” delivered at the 7th International Peace Cooperation Symposium (Tokyo: 22 January 2016); available from: http://www.shasegawa.com/archives/14082.

[5] The PKO Act established five principles for Japanese participation in PKOs, which include the need for a ceasefire, consent of parties to deployment, and strict impartiality, as well as caveats that weapons are to be used for a minimum level of self-defense and that Japan may withdraw if any of the first three conditions cease to hold.

[6] A 15 November 2016 government memo justifies the Japanese UNMISS engineering contingent’s new capabilities as enabling the rescue of partners and Japanese nationals in extremely limited cases, while simultaneously noting that the South Sudanese government and UNMISS infantry provide primary protection and that Japan’s contingent is not equipped for security tasks; available (Japanese) from: http://www.kantei.go.jp/jp/headline/pdf/heiwa_anzen/kangaekata_20161115.pdf.