TOKYO -- As Japan's Defense Ministry weighs whether to acquire the ability to strike enemy bases, it will need to persuade skeptics inside and outside the country that the idea is consistent with Japan's pacifist principles.
This strategy, now being considered in light of the growing threat posed by North Korea, would involve destroying enemy missile bases, rather than shooting down the missiles themselves. This could potentially occur not only after a launch, but also when an imminent launch has been detected or when missiles are being prepared for an attack.
Whether Japan's pacifist constitution allows this is subject to debate. The government contends that striking enemy bases in response to an attack or the immediate threat of one falls within the sphere of permitted self-defense powers.
But the 1956 interpretation of the charter that established this right to self-defense stipulates that it is an option Japan may resort to only "if no other suitable means are available." Previous debates on strike capability have often raised the question of whether Japan could ever claim to have no other alternative when the U.S. is obligated to defend Japan under their bilateral defense pact.
The current interpretation of the charter allows Japan to maintain and exercise only the minimum necessary capability to defend itself if attacked. It may be difficult to justify the equipment needed to strike enemy bases, such as cruise missiles and systems to disrupt enemy air defenses, as being purely for defensive purposes.
The push to review defense guidelines could meet with resistance from not only opposition parties, but also doves within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito. "We have no plans for concrete discussion" of strike capability, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said in February.
The idea of Japan gaining the ability to attack would also be likely to rile neighbors including China and South Korea, which could say it evokes militaristic prewar Japan.
The government's languishing approval rating in the wake of recent scandals may also make it tough to tackle such challenges head-on. The debate could touch on the controversial issue of amending the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9, a goal of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Gaining independent strike capabilities may force a rethink of the established structure of Japan's alliance with the U.S., in which the former serves as the defense-oriented "shield," providing logistical support, and the latter as the offensive "spear."
Some in the U.S. hope that such a policy change could prompt Japan to purchase Tomahawk missiles or other American-made equipment. But this comes alongside wariness of Japan attaining greater national security independence, as well as concern about the potential for such a shift to become a source of instability in northeastern Asia.
Though Washington and Tokyo agree on the need to expand the role of Japan's Self-Defense Forces, whether the U.S. wants Japan to be able to strike enemy bases is unclear, a senior Defense Ministry official said.
A former Maritime Self-Defense Force official says the necessary equipment, such as reconnaissance satellites and countermeasures against air defense systems, would cost trillions of yen, or tens of billions of dollars. It would be a tough sell to the Japanese public given the dire state of the nation's finances.