At today’s meeting of the Japanese Security Council (安全保障会議) the proposal to relax Japan’s ‘Three Principles of Arms Exports’ (武器輸出三原則 – hereafter, the ‘Three Principles’) will be tabled and agreed to. The information will be publicly promulgated by way of a Chief Cabinet Secretary Statement (官房長官談話). That this is finally happening is not much of a surprise. It was on the agenda last year until former PM Kan sold it off in what was eventually a hopeless attempt to get Fukushima Mizuho and the Socialist Democratic Party to support the budget process (en) of the time. There was talk of a direct recommendation being included in last year’s National Defense Program Guidelines (防衛計画大綱), although they eventually settled for a suggestion that the issue would need to be addressed in the near future. In July this year a Ministry of Defense committee of experts expressed the need to revisit the (non) decision and this gained some political momentum when DPJ policy chief Maehara Seiji at a September Washington meeting came out forcefully in favour of revision and has been pushing it since (ja). The DPJ’s Diplomacy and Security Policy Committee has had their own view on how the 3 principles should be revised well in place for some time and from this point on the proposal quickly progressed (ja) to the vice-ministerial level.

Before looking to the future, which I will wait until tomorrow to do after I have time to look at the official statement and the exact wording, I thought it would be worthwhile to actually describe a little bit of the history, the actual institutional operational basis of the principles, and the main internal stakeholders driving what now looks to be inevitable change.

The history and the legal framework

In brief, in order to export or supply goods and technologies with the potential to undermine international peace and security from Japan you need the METI Minister’s permission to do this. Currently, while there are principles that provide guidance to which countries such goods, technologies or knowledge can and cannot be transferred to, no such principles exist for evaluating exactly which goods do and do not undermine international peace. Instead, we have a variety of laws, parliamentary statements, and cabinet directives that detail exemptions, or how exemptions are to be operationalized in the implementation of limiting Japan’s export of weapons. I will describe the various stages of how this all came about.

The Three Principles actually existed for some time prior to them becoming part of Japan’s political, and some would argue, constitutional fabric. Originally it was  up to the METI Minister to decide on what could and could not be exported and the Japanese government only came to officially and publicly embrace the policy from the 1960s onwards.

Occupation era source of the ‘Three Principles’

In 1949 the Foreign Exchange and Trade Act (Law no.228) was passed on the 1st December. There are two key clauses that still form an important part of the Three Principles to this day.

Article 25, Clause 1 essentially identifies and recognizes the principle that Japan should avoid undermining international peace and security (国際的な平和及び安全の維持を防げることになると認められる), and in order to do this Japan would need to place limits on the kinds of objects, technologies and research knowledge created by Japanese industry that could be transported overseas, whether through private or public trade.

Article 48, Clause 1 identifies the need for the (MITI) Minister to pay attention to certain types of countries when considering the export of certain arms or arms technologies. Countries of particular concern were:

1) Communist nations;

2) Countries subject to a UN resolution or arms embargo; and

3) Countries involved in armed conflict or in the process of entering armed conflict

These distinctions would form the core of the eventually much stricter ‘Three Principles,’ however initially it was theoretically possible with the MITI Minister’s permission for companies to transport arms to the above nations.

While there were some guiding principles for the types of countries that should be subjected to greater limitations, there was no such guidance in this law that would enable the MITI Minister to make a robust decision on what exactly could and could not be exported. A ‘negative list’ of controlled goods and technologies would thus be required.

This was provided in the same year when Cabinet Order 378 (Export and Trade Control Ordinance),  explicitly identified what would be subject to limitations on the basis of the power given to the government by the Foreign Exchange and Trade Law. There were 16 classes of items listed and if anyone is really interested I can list them, but it is reasonably comprehensive and included everything from helmets to the transportation of genetic material and biological vectors that could be used in biological and chemical warfare.

The Post-Anpo period

From 1967 to 1981 there are three government actions which reaffirmed and strengthened Japan’s disposition towards the limitation of weapon exports.

On the 21st of April 1967 in the Lower House Accounting Committee Prime Minister Sato Eisaku in his parliamentary response, referencing the 1949 aforementioned law and cabinet ordinance, stated that while Japan should need not necessarily be completely prohibited from exporting weapons overseas, it would not do so to countries that met any of the three conditions identified in the 1949 Act. Thus a blanket ban was put in place for any nations fulfilling those conditions and thus the ‘Three Principles’ was born in the popular political imagination.

They were further strengthened again on the 27th February 1976 when the Miki Cabinet’s ‘Collective View of the Government’ (hereafter, the ‘Collective View’) on the export of arms (武器輸出についての政府の統一見解) was promulgated at the Lower House Budgetary Committee. This collective view is still technically the collective view of the Japanese government up until at least today’s release of the new principles.

Generally speaking the Collective View is seen to be a comprehensive ban on the export of arms to any overseas nations, and in practical terms it was certainly very close to that for a number of years. However, a closer look at the text reveals that the Miki Cabinet continued to make a distinction between those countries completely excluded by the ‘Three Principles’ and all other countries. The Japanese government would continue on the one hand to not allow the export of weapons to countries covered by the ‘Three Principles’, while on the other hand Japan would ‘abstain’ (慎む) from exporting weapons to those countries not covered by the Three Principles.

In this case ‘abstain’ was taken to mean that the government would deal with the issue of weapons exports to ‘other’ countries ‘cautiously’ (慎重に対処する) by not allowing weapons that would foster or promote international conflict (国際紛争等を助長) to be sent from Japan. However if it could be demonstrated that there would be no reason to abstain from the export of weapons, technologies or research on the basis of the desire to avoid fostering international conflict, then exceptions may be allowed by the MITI (now METI) Minister. This is the basis of the increasing number of exemptions which have made Japan export restrictions somewhat lacking in overall rationale in the last 10-15 years in particular, although there was much hesitation prior to the 1990s to allow a great number of exemptions.

Prior to this however was the resolution passed by both the Upper and Lower Houses of the Japanese Diet in March 1981.  Essentially these resolutions reaffirmed the 1976 Miki Cabinet ‘Collective View’ and recommended that the government be more prudent in dealing with contraventions of arms’ export limitation regime and improve the institutional effectiveness of the policy. Tanaka Rokusuke, then MITI Minister, accepted the resolutions and reaffirmed the conviction to act in accordance with the spirit of the resolution and more resolute implementation.

The Nakasone era until the end of the 1955 system

While from the mid-1980s the number of types of technologies and research, and then eventually types of physical hardware that could be exported increased, these were mostly still well within the framework of the Miki ‘Collective View’ on the Three Principles.

It is best to deal with the exemptions by discussing the US-specific exemptions and what we could call ‘individual exemptions’ separately.

US-specific exemptions

The first exemption which undermined the idea that the ‘Collective View’ of the Miki Cabinet represented a blanket ban on all weapons exports was the allowance made in 1983 for the transfer of weapons technology from Japan to the US. Two more US-specific exemptions came in 2004. One was that BMD ‘weapons’ produced through co-development and co-production between Japan and the US could be exported to the US. The second was the co-development and co-production of non-BMD weapons by Japan and the US could also be exported to the US although this would be on a case by case basis after an investigation by the appropriate government authorities.

The reason for splitting up the discussion is that these exemptions actually create an interesting situation where if the US, most likely by being a country involved in international conflict (not unheard of), were to be judged to be within the realm of the ‘Three Principles’, it would still be able to receive Japanese technology, and BMD and other co-developed exports from Japan. However, the US would (and is) still in theory highly restricted from receiving other types of weapons from Japan (ie Japan should ‘abstain’), and if it is engaged in conflict, it should in theory be banned from receiving the non-exempted weapons, systems, or technologies at all. This slightly unusual position – and not particularly well implemented position at that- is currently still the one the Japanese government holds.

Individual exemptions

There are many of them, starting in particular from 1991 when the SDF started to participate in more overseas missions such as PKOs, disaster relief or other humanitarian activities. The limitations applied to the SDF as well as moving equipment outside of the nation was still subject to Japanese law and arms’ export limitations. Looking at the range of exemptions one can see why it may be better to start again from first principles with the export restrictions. About half relate to the activities of the SDF overseas. I may include a discussion of them in my next post.

The other notable government action in the 1990s that relates to the Three Principles is the 1993 Government Collective View on the Export of General Dual Purpose Equipment (汎用品の輸出に関する政府統一見解), which was presented at the Upper House Budgetary Committee on the 11th March. Essentially this was a declaration that dual use technologies and equipment would not be subjected to the restrictions of the Three Principles. The specific example of the time was the Boeing 767 aircraft and the possibility that its early warning and control systems could be used in war and combat activities (en). It was judged that this did not radically differ from what is used in commercial aircraft and would therefore not be subjected to the limitations of the arms export policy.  The government’s collective view was then that technologies and goods with military applications that could commonly be used in civilian applications should not be restricted from export.

Internal Stakeholders and Change Agents

The issue of revising Japan’s limits on the export of arms has been on the diplomatic agenda for a long time, with the US in particular having been pushing for changes since they were implemented more strictly in the 1960s. Of course some may argue this is precisely why they were implemented more strongly. Nevertheless there have been a number of internal stakeholders who have driven change. Changes in Japan’s geopolitical and security situation, as well as general military trends have created quite a different situation which JSW readers will be well aware of. One of the key issues has however been that Japan is unable to participate in international collaborations on crucial security systems and assets, and may well be unable to adequately perform its increasing and seemingly sought after roles in humanitarian and UN PKO activities. This and other related changes in Japan’s security policy will be discussed in more detail in the next post.

Specifically for the Three Principles, the first internal stakeholder was the keidanren (who has been advocating in more lukewarm terms since the 1960s) who initially made a renewed and bold attempt at changing the principles in 2004 (ja) by suggesting that while they overall principles should be upheld, a blanket ban was not necessarily in favour of Japan’s national or security interests. They produced another report in 2010 arguing quite reasonably that Japan needed to reconsider its policy of indigenous production and procurement in light of modern military and security trends and the challenging geopolitical environment.

Revisions to the Three Principles would help with this by allowing Japan to more proactively participate in co-development and co-production of high-tech military equipment. It is currently difficult for Japan to participate in international consortia as while the Three Principles in themselves do not exclude Japan from participating, they do prevent Japan from exporting the finished products or transferring the relevant technology and know-how.

The Ministry of Defense has also been quite proactive in promoting the issue. It has essentially identified three reasons for revising the current arms’ export limitations.

1) To enable Japan’s international cooperation activities to be effectively implemented, a blanket exemption should be given to the equipment needed by the Japanese SDF and cooperating nations;

2) For the purposes of strengthening the US-Japan alliance and international co-development and production, licensed products should be provided to approved nations.

3) For the purpose of the acquisition of low cost equipment and supporting Japan’s defense industry and technological base, international co-development and co-production should be embraced where appropriate and the imported equipment into Japan (and exported elsewhere) would be incorporated in the final products – thus creating an ‘offset trade.’

In 2010 then Defense Minister Kitazawa twice commented in parliament on the need to relook at the 1976 Collective View and what had grown from out of it. In February during a Lower House Budgetary Committee meeting he stated that dealing with the exemptions, such as had been done for the BMD issue, through a Chief Cabinet Secretary Statement was a “stop-gap” measure and there was a need to revisit the arms’ export regime again from first principles. In October of the same year he suggested that returning to the Sato formula would be appropriate – in his personal view he felt that having a blanket ban on friendly countries and so forth was somewhat curious.

Finally, the DPJ’s Diplomacy and Security Policy Committee has come up with a set of principles that is likely to reflect what will be announced tomorrow.

The committee, which consulted widely within the DPJ and engaged a number of the younger members of the party, essentially believes that the principles regarding the countries that should be subject to a blanket ban should be maintained. However it has identified the need for additional principles to give guidance to the government over what, and towards whom to exercise restraint in terms of the export of weapons systems and related technology.

For non-blanket ban countries Japan should, according to the DPJ Diplomacy and Security Committee:

1) Limit the export of finished military systems to those goods or systems that support peacebuilding and humanitarian interventions;

2) When involving itself in a co-development/co-production project or international consortium, ensure that the participation of the other countries in, and their support of weapons export control and management regimes is genuine and robust; and also that

3) These nations have good systems and standards for preventing the unauthorized export to third party nations, as well as have good capacity to maintain secrecy and confidentiality.

Number one above if it is included in the final statement is actually quite significant. What this means is that Japan cannot export finished products, even to friendly nations, made internally that have a high chance of contributing to or exacerbating conflict – in other words the export of the explosives, guns, tanks, fighters etc. It will be interesting to see how the provision of patrol boats etc for anti-piracy operations is dealt with. Will the government continue to rely on the recent exemption or will this be included as a ‘principle’ along with peacebuilding and humanitarian interventions as a legitimate reason for exporting military equipment?

Essentially what tomorrow’s announcement should do is re-widen the gap between the countries directly affected by the original ‘Three Principles’ that was narrowed by the 1976 Miki Cabinet’s Collective View. It is also likely that some additional principles about what kinds of weapons can and cannot be exported to ‘other’ nations, which up until now has been managed through ‘negative lists’ and lists of exemptions.

In the next post I will not only cover what I think are the key aspects of the statement and new principles but their broader implications for Japan’s security policy and its evolution, as well as some of the political significance in terms of Japan’s evolving political culture, especially around security policy.

Update: Japan has indeed since subsequently relaxed the restrictions on arms’ exports. Please see here for translation of, and commentary on, the new document.

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 51 post(s) on Japan Security Watch