Authors: Kate Stevenson, Australia–Japan Research Centre and Yuji Uesugi, Waseda University
On 27 March 2018, the Japanese Defense Ministry inaugurated a new Ground Component Command (GCC) in Asaka, north of Tokyo. This has been described as one of the biggest institutional shake ups in the history of Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF).
The GCC establishes centralised command for the GSDF’s five regional armies, which have until now functioned as semi-independent entities that each require separate orders for mobilisation. The new framework aligns GSDF structures with Japan’s air and maritime forces, and in theory provides a more effective means of defending Japan’s southern islands, responding to regional contingencies, coordinating between Japanese forces and engaging with the United States.
The original, decentralised command structure of the GSDF was a legacy of World War II, designed to prevent the resurgence of a politically powerful military. But contemporary concerns centre on achieving a more streamlined command that promotes cohesion and efficiency across the regional armies. The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 was one of the greatest factors in setting this change in motion. The disaster revealed a lack of jointness that hindered effective communications, operations and leadership.
While the GCC restructure was intended to have a primarily Domestic scope, it will almost certainly have consequences for Japan’s international engagement and regional security cooperation. The dissolution of the GSDF’s Central Readiness Force (CRF), which occurred along with the GCC’s creation, will have a negative impact on Japan’s international military affairs.
Established in 2007, one of the CRF’s many functions was to provide the senior personnel and general training for Japan’s international peace cooperation and SDF deployments. Both the CRF International Peace Cooperation Activities Training Unit (IPCAT) and the Civil-Military Cooperation Division (CIMIC) have been integral components in recent GSDF forays overseas. English and Japanese reporting on the GCC both overlook the fact that the restructure has reduced the civil–military capabilities originally centred in the CRF.
The dissolution of the CRF was not unexpected. The idea of merging the CRF into a new central command was mentioned as early as 2008. While the CRF CIMIC function has at least on paper been absorbed into the GCC, it has been downgraded. Interviews with former and serving GSDF personnel suggest that the CRF’s small pool of experts has been ‘downsized’, that GCC staff have less practical experience and that the unit is now further away from top decision-makers. Former vice chief of staff from the Joint Staff Office lieutenant general Goro Matsumura as well as other interviewees from the GSDF agreed that the disappearance of the CIMIC Division would have a negative impact on Japan’s contributions overseas.
The absence of a core unit of personnel with practical experience is a major concern for teaching and for later leading civil–military engagement and international cooperation. A former officer from the CRF asserted that those tasked with education programs are increasingly out of date and that, following the withdrawal of Japan’s engineering units from Peace Keeping Operations in South Sudan, there are few foreseeable chances for the GSDF to refresh institutional knowledge.
This may be tolerable in peace keeping operations where there is a longer timeframe with which to learn and adjust, but it doesn’t look good for disaster relief or crises where there are hours, not weeks to respond. The IPCAT at the GSDF and the Japan Peacekeeping Training and Research Center at the Joint Staff College may be able to hold the fort, but their capacity to address non-peace keeping missions remains to be seen.
Questions about the downgrade of CIMIC capabilities may be answered by timing. The establishment of the GCC comes at a point where institutional focus is turning heavily to national defence. North Korea, Chinese military expansion and concerns about territorial sovereignty have returned to the forefront of Japan’s security concerns. Japan’s Self Defense Force, especially its air and maritime forces, are being stretched for resources as scrambles to the north and south increase.
Accordingly, and perhaps contrary to the desire of Japan’s foreign ministry, the GSDF and the defence ministry have low enthusiasm for international forays, especially further peace keeping operations. The emphasis is back on national defence and the US alliance.
The establishment of the GCC has been hailed as a milestone for domestic cohesion, but it has broader and potentially less positive implications beyond Japan’s domestic structures. The GSDF may have recentralised, but it has also pared back on its capacity for international engagement. Japanese policymakers are not the only ones facing inwards, with US President Donald Trump’s vocal endorsement of ‘America-first’ politics a case in point.
After 20 years of fumbling, Japan still has not settled on its role in the international community. The SDF has gradually earned itself an international reputation as a security actor with a humanitarian edge. Without a focal point like the CRF to lead international activity, its humanitarian achievements may stumble under pressure from domestic priorities.
The GCC restructure could prove to be a double-edged sword: effective for streamlining domestic command but blunting SDF engagement in international cooperation activities. Japanese security planners need to view the effects of the restructure in the long term and consider how the new domestic framework can still support commitments to ‘proactive peace’ overseas.
Kate Stevenson is a Research Fellow at the Australia–Japan Research Centre.
Yuji Uesugi is a Professor at the School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University.