The Japanese government first deployed the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) overseas in 1991. As of March 2020, the SDF has been deployed overseas a total of 55 times. There was one deployment per year in the first ten years of this 30-year period, with a majority of deployments based on the Act on Cooperation with United Nations Peacekeeping Operations.
The Nikkei tallied the SDF’s overseas activities described in the 2020 white paper on defense. The Gulf War, which broke out in 1991, triggered the first overseas deployment of the SDF. Japan dispatched a minesweeping unit so that vessels could safely sail in the Persian Gulf.
Japan’s deployment was not respected by the international community because it was done after the ceasefire. Although Japan contributed a total 13 billion yen in financial assistance related to the Gulf War, Japan was criticized for not contributing human resources.
Based on the lessons learned from this incident, the Japanese government enacted the peacekeeping operations (PKO) act in 1992, thereby establishing a legal basis for SDF deployment. Since then, the SDF has been deployed to such countries as Cambodia and Mozambique. The government revised the Law Concerning the Dispatch of Japan Disaster Relief Team in 1992, facilitating SDF deployment for relief operations in major natural disasters overseas.
The number of overseas deployments increased after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Japan enacted the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law and sent Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) supply vessels and destroyers to the Indian Ocean to provide supplies to several countries’ vessels.
When the Iraq War began in 2003, Japan enacted a special measures law so that the SDF could participate in humanitarian assistance efforts, such as providing medical care and water, and transporting resources.
A quarter of the SDF deployments between 2001 and 2010 were based on special measures laws. Humanitarian assistance activities comprised more than 30% of deployments. About 925 personnel were deployed to Indonesia to transport supplies after the December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.
It was difficult for Japan to agilely make a global contribution because a special measures law needed to be enacted for each deployment. The national security legislation enacted in 2015 includes a permanent law that facilitates Japan’s deployment of the SDF overseas.
There were no SDF deployments based on special measures laws between 2011 and 2020. Instead, the SDF took part in more emergency relief activities. There were more opportunities worldwide to utilize military capabilities for humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, and Japan proactively implemented such activities as well.
There were only two SDF deployments based on the PKO act between 2011 and 2020, comprising only 10% of total deployments. The SDF currently dispatches command personnel to South Sudan based on the PKO act but is not deploying any units.
One of the reasons [for the decrease in PKO deployments] is that peacekeeping operations are more dangerous. It has become more difficult to deploy the SDF, who have limitations on their use of weapons in PKO situations. According to a United Nations document, deaths among PKO personnel are increasing.
There is no indication that the PKO environment will improve. Japan must now consider new methods for making an international contribution.