TOKYO -- JS Izumo, Japan's aircraft carrier-like destroyer, sailed parallel to the Richard E. Byrd, a U.S. Navy supply ship off the Boso Peninsula, Chiba Prefecture, on May 1, marking the first time that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces were in position to use weapons to protect American naval vessels.
The JS Sazanami destroyer was also on hand as the ships exercised off the island of Shikoku for three days.
The Japanese Defense Ministry announced the operation as a "joint drill," without disclosing the Maritime Self-Defense Force's mission to guard the U.S. ship. By taking part in the drill, Japan stepped into a new role in which it will fill in should the U.S. military find itself short-handed. It also testifies to the two countries' militaries increasing their reliance on each other.
On April 23, MSDF escort ships began a joint drill with the USS Carl Vinson, an American atomic-powered aircraft carrier, in the Western Pacific. Fighter planes from the carrier and those of Japan's Air Self-Defense Force conducted a joint exercise on April 28, competing to fly behind each other.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe immediately gave his nod to the drills in early April when a senior Defense Ministry official presented plans to him. Abe is taking the initiative to reinforce the deterrent effect of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
In contrast to strengthening its security bond with the U.S., Japan is struggling to improve its defense cooperation with South Korea.
Nearly 60,000 Japanese will need to be helped from South Korea should an emergency occur on the peninsula, and Tokyo continues to talk to Seoul on how such an evacuation would be conducted.
"An evacuation would not be easy if South Korea is attacked by [North Korean] missiles," a Seoul-based diplomatic source said. And "it's difficult to hold talks with the South Korean government" on the issue.
Safety manual needs update
Tokyo's plan is to use the SDF to rescue Japanese in South Korea. But Seoul has not consented to the return of Japanese troops to its soil. The country harbors painful memories of Japan's colonial rule, from 1910 to 1945, and South Koreans remain wary of the SDF.
"If necessary, we will go rescue Japanese even without consent," a senior Defense Ministry official said. But without information on evacuation routes from the South Korean government, such a mission could fail.
In addition, the Japanese government is concerned that defense cooperation between Japan and South Korea, which advanced when ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye was in office, may suffer a setback under the administration of her successor, Moon Jae-in.
Japan's embassy in Seoul has prepared and kept updating a "safety manual" for Japanese in South Korea. It gives advice on what to do during a natural disaster, should one be a victim of a grave crime, if terrorism strikes or a pandemic hits. But it needs to be further updated and consider the nuclear and missile threats posed by North Korea.
Full of anxiety
"We have no in-house manual when the use of force occurs," said a worried Japanese businessman assigned to South Korea. The company he works for has yet to decide on conditions under which it should call back employees and their families to Japan.
"I wonder if I should return, leaving local staff in South Korea?" he said. "The decision will be difficult when I consider, among other matters, possible effects on our reputation in South Korea."
Japan's government conducted the nation's first evacuation drill in Oga, Akita Prefecture, on March 17 on the assumption of a North Korean ballistic missile strike. Local residents were called on to "flee for refuge as parts of a missile may come down."
But most local governments are reluctant to hold similar drills for fear of arousing anxieties.
Residents are not the only one who might be growing anxious. When asked how Japan might handle North Korean refugees who could flow into the country should an emergency hit the peninsula, a government official replied, "We are full of anxiety as we have never experienced such a task."