Collective Self-Defense

Publications Collective Self-Defense

What is Collective Self-Defense?

The right of “collective self-defense” was enshrined in Article 51 of the 1945 United Nations Charter. It refers to the right of all UN countries to use military force to defend other member nations from attack. It has provided the basis for all UN-authorized military operations, from the Korean War onwards.

Japan’s Pacifist Constitution

Japan does not exercise its right to collective self-defense. Provisions in Japan’s constitution underlie the controversy over this. In 1947, while Japan was under Allied occupation, it adopted, under pressure, an American-written constitution. The most unique aspect of the document was its pacifist Article 9, which reads:

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

Pacifists interpreted these two paragraphs to mean Japan was unable to legally possess any type of military capability. Moreover, participation in any war — defensive or aggressive — is not allowed. Conservative governments have interpreted the Article to mean that aggressive war and the armaments for that purpose are renounced, but Japan retained the right to possess and exercise force necessary to preserve its existence. “War potential” was any military capability in excess of the minimum necessary for self-defense.

With the conservatives forming the vast majority of postwar governments, their interpretation dominated Japanese security discussions. Despite early debates over the creation and role of a National Peace Reserves during the Korean War, by 1954 Japan established a Self-Defense Force (SDF) for the purpose of self-defense. Toward this end, governments specified three conditions under which to exercise self-defense: 1) when Japan is facing an imminent and illegitimate act of aggression; 2) there is no other means to counter the threat; and 3) when the use of force in self-defense is limited to the minimum necessary level.

While the exercise of individual self-defense was not deemed problematic, the same was not true of collective self-defense. Japan recognizes that, as a member of the UN, it possesses the right to collective self-defense, but successive governments have interpreted Article 9 as precluding the exercise of that right. Accordingly, this meant Japan was never in a position to defend its U.S. ally from attack despite the U.S. pledging Japan’s defense.

Abe’s Cabinet Reinterprets Article 9

At the start of his second term as Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe commissioned a group to study the implications of Japan’s interpretation of Article 9 in specific contingencies. The commission issued a report on May 15, 2014. Rather than addressing only those contingencies, the report recommended a constitutional reinterpretation that would allow the virtually unimpeded exercise of collective self-defense. On July 1, 2014, following bargaining between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner, New Komeito, a Buddhist party holding pacifist views, Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet approved a reinterpretation of Article 9. Although essentially maintaining the three conditions under which to exercise self-defense, the reinterpretation included Japan’s ability to assist other countries. The reinterpretation states:

“The Government has reached a conclusion that not only when an armed attack against Japan occurs but also when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and when there is no other appropriate means available to repel the attack and ensure Japan’s survival and protect its people, use of force to the minimum extent necessary should be interpreted to be permitted under the Constitution as measures for self-defense in accordance with the basic logic of the Government’s view to date.”


In the United States, the reinterpretation was generally met with approval. Then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel released a statement praising the Japanese cabinet for demonstrating its intention “to make a greater contribution to regional and global peace and security.” During a news briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary, Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, asserted that the new self-defense policy was “an encouraging sign for the Alliance moving forward.”

In China and South Korea, the reinterpretation was met with mixed but largely negative reactions. Both countries endured harsh occupation by Japan in the 20th century and issued statements condemning Japan’s reinterpretation of Article 9 as a step toward remilitarization and a dramatic break from previous security policies.

2015 Defense Guidelines

On April 27, 2015, at a meeting of the Security Consultative Committee in New York, U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense, John Kerry and Ashton Carter, and their Japanese counterparts unveiled new U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation, the first such update since 1997. By recognizing the reinterpretation of Article 9, the Guidelines promise to significantly change the Alliance. The Guidelines reflect the language of the Abe Cabinet decision of 2014, almost verbatim:

“The Self-Defense Forces will conduct appropriate operations involving the use of force to respond to situations where an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result, threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to overturn fundamentally its people’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, to ensure Japan’s survival, and to protect its people.”

The language will allow an important, albeit caveated, expansion of Japan’s role in the Alliance. Under the previous Guidelines, the SDF was greatly constrained in joining, or prohibited from, the type of coordination and cooperation that the United States conducts routinely with such allies as South Korea and Australia. The new Guidelines recognize the “global nature” of the Alliance and outline measures to allow U.S. forces and the SDF to “seamlessly” plan, train and operate together. The new Guidelines also provide for non-combatant evacuation operations overseas, including for third-country nationals.

Security Legislation

In order for Japan to follow through on the promises it made in the Guidelines, Prime Minister Abe still needed to pass the requisite domestic legislation relating to Japan’s security policies. After months of contentious debate, on September 19, 2015, Japan’s Diet passed the government’s package of 11 security bills. Although the legislation relaxed restrictions on a variety of issues, the focal point of deliberations was on collective self-defense. The legislation did not result in a full-blown embrace of the right of collective self-defense, however. Instead, the July 1, 2014 restrictive conditions on the use of force remain. Nevertheless, the legislation along with the revised U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines promises to transform the legal and institutional framework for Japanese defense policy and U.S.-Japan security relations. Japan’s Ministry of Defense and Self-Defense Forces are now busy operationalizing these laws and training SDF personnel accordingly. This process is expected to take roughly one year.


Additional Resources:

More information and views on these issues and implications of Japan’s reinterpretation of its constitution regarding the exercise of collective self-defense, the new Guidelines, and the security legislation can be found in the following articles and reports:

“Q&A: Japan’s Legislative Package on Expanding Military Role.” Wall Street Journal. 14 May, 2015.

“The Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation.” U.S. Department of Defense Website. 27 April, 2015.

“Reexamining ‘Myths’ About Japan’s Collective Self-Defense Change – What critics (and the Japanese public) do understand about Japan’s constitutional reinterpretation.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. 8 September, 2014.

“INTERVIEW / Hiromu Nonaka: War should not be repeated, collective self-defense dangerous.” Asahi Shimbun. 14 August, 2014.

“Pempel: ‘Abe politicized collective self-defense’.” Dispatch Japan. 6 August, 2014.

“Ten Myths About Japan’s Collective Self-Defense Change.” The Diplomat. 10 July, 2014.

“Why Japan’s Military Shift Is Necessary for South Korea.” Wall Street Journal. 4 July, 2014.

“Cabinet Decision on Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect its People.” Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet website. 1 July, 2014.

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