TOKYO -- Japan on Aug. 31 ordered the return of evacuation aircraft dispatched to Afghanistan. While other countries have brought several hundred to more than 100,000 people to safety, Japan has flown out only 15 people. The bungled evacuation effort, which met with legal and other obstacles, offers lessons to Japan when it comes to preparing for possible emergency situations in the Taiwan Strait or on the Korean Peninsula.
"Local people working in this country's organizations are our family members," Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters on Aug. 23, after ordering the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces to Afghanistan. The SDF's mission is to rescue not only Japanese nationals but also Afghans working at the embassy and other Japanese concerns, Kishi stressed.
Several Japanese citizens and up to 500 Afghans who had supported their efforts over the past two decades remain in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Considering the potential danger these people were in, Japan concluded that the responsible thing would be to fly the support workers and Japanese nationals out of the country if they so wish.
But the operation brought only one Japanese evacuee and 14 Afghans who had worked for the U.S. to safety.
Japan planned to transport 500 people aboard some 25 buses to Kabul's airport on Aug. 26. Two suicide bomb attacks near the airport that day waylaid the plan. And now that the U.S. has completed its mission, Japan has lost the means to lift to safety those it left behind.
The U.S. carried 120,000 away from the Taliban, while Britain evacuated more than 10,000 people. Germany and France helped bring out thousands more. South Korea lifted 390 to safety.
One reason Japan's efforts paled in comparison: The decision-making process took so much time that it became impossible to carry out the airlift before the attacks. All other Group of Seven members began to act around Aug. 15.
A legal restraint hindered the effort. Based on the law that regulates the details of the SDF's overseas activities, the forces can bring Japanese citizens and other "family members" to safety in the event of unrest. The SDF can also be given leeway to use force, if necessary, during a rescue mission, though certain conditions have to be met.
The latest mission was approved under Article 84-4 of the Self-Defense Forces Act, which allows the SDF to carry out a transportation operation if it can be conducted safely. It took time to confirm whether it was safe to operate out of Kabul's airport, an absolute prerequisite for the mission.
The issue of overseas SDF dispatches has split public opinion. The prime minister's office, the governing camp and opposition bloc all had to be assured that the mission could be carried out smoothly and safely before the mission could gain approval, a senior Foreign Ministry official said.
On-the-ground hurdles in Kabul also presented themselves. It took time before the government could secure a means of transporting people to the airport as agreements with multiple local parties had to be hammered out. The SDF operation was limited to the airport, as the situation outside of the gateway was deemed too dangerous. Japanese citizens and their local support staffers in midtown Kabul thus were outside the SDF's purview.
What prevented the government from invoking Article 84-3, which allows for protecting those to be rescued? The article allows leeway when it comes to using force, if necessary, and invoking it would have enabled the SDF to operate outside the airport.
But the government was unable to invoke the article because three stipulations were impossible to meet: maintenance of order by authorities in the country concerned, consent of the country and cooperation with the country's authorities.
Afghanistan was between governments, and there was no clear party that could consent to or cooperate with the SDF.
Yet it is important that the SDF be able to evacuate Japanese civilians from lands with deteriorating security conditions. The fumbled Afghanistan response has some experts warning that Japan might fail to react fast enough to envisioned crises nearer home.
If an emergency situation in the Taiwan Strait or on the Korean Peninsula is deemed to pose threats to the survival of Japan, the SDF is allowed to respond with force, if necessary, to rescue Japanese citizens. But it would need to gain the consent of the government of that land before it could carry out a rescue mission.
Should such an emergency arise on the Korean Peninsula, an SDF rescue mission would likely need approval from Seoul. But South Korea would likely take a cautious stance on accepting SDF troops due to Japan's colonial occupation of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Defense Ministry officials question whether the SDF could be smoothly dispatched simply to protect Japanese citizens.
A more complicated situation would arise if China were to attack Taiwan. Japan maintains a "one China" policy, asserting that the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China. "There could be an odd case of Japan seeking consent from China as it attacks" Taiwan, a senior ministry official said.
"Undeniably, the decision to dispatch the SDF [to Afghanistan] came late," Michito Tsuruoka, an associate professor at Keio University, said. "Real preparations of how to respond under what circumstances are needed within the government."
Ministry officials often say that while laws in many countries stipulate what armed forces must not do, in Japan laws only spell out what the SDF is allowed to do. This refrain reflects the ministry officials' consciousness that the SDF cannot promptly respond to emergencies because of the limited number of missions that are defined for them.
SDF activities are restricted because of Japan's remorse for World War II and by the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9. The SDF thus found it difficult to act on its own and was slow in carrying out rescue operations in 1995 when a powerful earthquake devastated the southern part of Hyogo Prefecture.
Requirements to mobilize the SDF were eased after the temblor, known in Japan as the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Now, after the misadventure in Afghanistan, experts are saying legal and operational requirements need to be reviewed again so SDF activities fit the times.
Japanese citizens abroad have fallen victim to terror attacks and armed conflicts as more of the world becomes prone to crisis. The time has come for the government as well as ruling and opposition lawmakers -- not to mention Japanese society -- to do some "postwar homework" and answer how much leeway the SDF should have in operating on its own.