Japanese soldiers are taking up positions in Egypt.
Admittedly, it is not a large army. Only two officers are going there, for now.
But it’s a significant point because for many people, sending soldiers to foreign countries in any capacity goes against the pacifist spirit of Japan’s constitution.
In fact, it’s rather controversial to even call them soldiers or an army – they are members of Self Defence Force and their job is to defend the Japanese homeland.
Change of approach
The journalist Jeffrey Hornung explores the implications of the Egyptian deployment in an excellent article Foreign Policy magazine.
He says the men will join the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) which monitors the cease-fire between Israel and Egypt.
(At least I am assuming they are men – although I was told the other day that gender equality is high on the agenda of the Self Defence Forces, so they could be female officers.)
So is this another example of the constitution being ignored?
As Foreign Policy points out, Japan has dispatched troops to work with U.N.-controlled peacekeeping operations nine times.
When it comes to the future of the Self Defence Force, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has two clear goals.
Firstly, he wants to maintain a solid alliance with the United States.
He also wants to the reform of the constitution in order to change the status of the Self Defence Force into an army with the capacity to fight internationally.
On that point he is running out of time.
Constitutional change requires a majority in parliament, which should be possible, given the dominance of Mr Abe’s LDP party in both houses of the Diet. However, it also needs agreement through a referendum. Public opinion is divided on the issue, so it is doubtful that the government will press for a vote it could end up losing. Mr Abe’s term in office must conclude by September 2021.
Japan’s former enemies, China and South Korea, oppose a constitutional change which would empower the military, due to their bitter memories of being attacked and occupied. Japan will not wish to upset its neighbors, just as it hosts the Olympic Games next year.
Furthermore, it is inconceivable that Japan would reopen the debate about developing its own nuclear weapons, given the delicate relations with its neighbours.
Mr Abe recently told his party convention that the LDP “will lead concrete discussion towards proposing amendments to the constitution.”
Such discussions are likely to be as far as he can take the matter before he departs, almost certainly to be replaced as prime minister.
But quietly, behind the scenes the status of the Japanese armed forces is changing.
As Jeffrey Hornung puts it in Foreign Policy “While it may not seem like much now, we may be witnessing the start of a different kind of new era for Japan.”