Japan Takes Command — But Don’t Tell Anyone

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US Navy

Rear Adm. Fumiyuki Kitagawa, center, of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, during a tour of USS Peleliu earlier this year.

TOKYO – Japan’s potent but often over-looked military takes another step onto the world scene when a Japanese commander assumes one of the top posts in a major multi-national exercise scheduled to begin Friday in waters off Hawaii. Whether the folks back home consider that a good thing remains to be seen.

The RIMPAC 2012 war games are the largest naval training exercise in years, with ships, planes and troops from 22 countries, including Japan. The forces will conduct anti-submarine, missile-defense, live-fire, counter-piracy and other drills over vast stretches of the Pacific through early August.

For the first time, non-US officers will command major components of the fleet. A Japanese rear admiral, Fumiyuki Kitagawa, has been named vice commander of the Combined Task Force. That makes him second in command of a force that includes 48 ships and submarines, more than 200 warplanes and 25,000 troops.

It is the highest multi-national command for any Japanese officer since the Second World War II and represents a vote of confidence in Japan’s increasing military capability.

“This is a very significant event for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) because, for them, it is an affirmation of their capability and shows the level of trust that is being placed in them. To have any kind of actual command is something they’ve working toward for years,” says Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Daito Bunka University.

Japanese officers have had various commands in bi-lateral training missions with the U.S., but never in a major multi-national event. As the second in command of RIMPAC 2012, Kitagawa will play a key role in advising and assisting the exercise commander, an American.

That experience could be invaluable as the US moves additional ships and Marines to the Asia-Pacific region in response to China’s military buildup and territorial claims. China was not invited to take part in the RIMPAC exercises, which have been held every other year since 1970; Japan has participated regularly since the 1980s.

To be sure, Kitagawa won’t be directing real combat. The RIMPAC exercises once focused on fighting fleet-sized, Cold War battles. In recent years, as more countries have joined in – each with its own language, culture and procedures – the exercise has shifted more to nuts and bolts issues: making sure everyone knows to turn right or left when they’re supposed to; when to fire missiles and when not to; how to tell enemy aircraft from friendly.

“It’s more about safety, coordination, interoperability,” says Yoji Koda, former head of the joint staff for Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, who has taken part in RIMPAC exercises. “But the opportunity itself has significance for the JSDF.”

In some respects, the appointment of a Japanese officer should not be surprising.

Although officially pacifist, Japan has one of the largest and most capable military forces in the world, with the sixth- or seventh-largest defense budget. The JMSDF in particular is designed to train and operate in tandem with the U.S. Navy. The Japanese have focused on anti-submarine and anti-mine operations since the Cold War, and by now no one is better at it. This leaves the Americans free to concentrate on carrier and amphibious operations.

“Any U.S. naval officer will tell you the JMSDF is damned good at what they do,” says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, in Honolulu.

The self-defense forces also are among the most outward-oriented elements of Japanese society.  Kitagawa, 51, commander of a JMSDF destroyer flotilla, is a fluent English-speaker, served three years as defense attaché in Australia and was a foreign affairs staff officer. Many younger officers have been educated at US service academies and war colleges, assigned to US think tanks and non-governmental agencies, regularly appear at U.S. and overseas defense seminars and symposiums, and serve in exchange assignments with US forces.

This compares with the broader Japanese society, where few can communicate in English, attendance at foreign universities is dropping and only a small minority choose to travel or work overseas.

“The JMSDF is very much internationalized and outward-looking. They are very keen to get their young people and most able officers out into the wider naval community around the world,” says Mulloy, a former officer in the British army who has studied Japanese peacekeeping operations. “The average JMSDF staff officer has a much more cosmopolitan, internationalized view than, say, the average university professor or even member of the Diet.”

The rapid deployment of 100,000 troops in response to last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, and concern over aggressive moves by China, have boosted domestic support for the Japanese forces of late.  Nonetheless, mistrust runs deep.

Tokyo residents filed a lawsuit to prevent a cross-town training hike by a mere 20 soldiers earlier this year (they lost the lawsuit, but a throng of reporters and cameramen disrupted the hike).  Protesters lined the roads when a handful of tanks were transported by truck and ferry from Hokkaido to Kyushu in a mobility drill in 2011.

And while Kitagawa’s role in the RIMPAC war games has drawn little attention, so far, defense officials last month were forced to answer concerns that Japanese warships in the 2010 RIMPAC exercises might have violated restrictions against “collective defense” by participating in a gunnery exercise with foreign ships. There were no violations, officials said.

Under Japan’s restrictive peacekeeping and anti-terrorism laws, Japanese troops in most cases are not permitted to command, or come under the command of, foreign forces. The US-Japan Security Treaty provides an exception for exercises like RIMPAC 2012, which is hosted by US Pacific Command.

Nonetheless, Pacific Command was quick to issue a clarification this week that despite Kitagawa’s appointment as second in command, Japanese forces would not directly command, or be commanded by, any other forces during the exercise.

Try telling that to the folks back home.