Global Insider: Japan’s Military Base in Djibouti

The commanding officer of Japan’s counterpiracy mission in the Gulf of Aden recently announced that Japan would be building a base in Djibouti for the forces serving on the mission. In an e-mail interview, Ayako Doi, associate fellow of the Asia Society, explained the significance of what the AFP called Japan’s first overseas military base.

WPR: What does this move respond to?

Doi: Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) began its anti-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia last March, with a dispatch of two navy destroyers equipped with a set of patrol helicopters and carrying about 400 sailors. The mission was authorized by a special legislation, renewable after a year.

Currently the Japanese troops use the U.S. facilities for lodging, meals and recreation while ashore. As the Japanese government began to realize that this mission is going to last for some time, it decided to build barracks and hangars that would better serve the needs of its troops and equipment. “Currently [SDF members] are working in a less-than-desirable environment, eating meals at an American military installation, and their aircraft are parked outdoors,” a top MSDF (Maritime SDF) official I inquired via e-mail wrote to me from Tokyo.

Knowing the Japanese dietary habits, I can imagine gripes by Japanese soldiers about a steady diet of hamburgers and other greasy American food, and the lack of Japanese amenities. For construction in Djibouti, Tokyo has appropriated $43 million, which seems large, but may not be out of proportion to what it spent in the past in similar projects. The MSDF official said the facility is likely to be donated to the government of Djibouti after the mission is completed.

WPR: Is it likely to set a precedent for a future Japanese global security role?

Doi: I don’t see this dispatch, or the construction, as a departure from the current Japanese security policy. The fact that the plan has never been reported by major Japanese media outlets, which are ultra-sensitive to anything that smacks of a return to militarism, may be testament to its benign nature. Since 1993, Tokyo has participated in a number of peacekeeping operations around the world, and in fact added “international security cooperation” as one of the pillars of SDF mission, along with defense of Japan and cooperation with U.S. for regional security, a few years ago. But their mission has always been limited to rear support duties that involve no combat situation — and there is no sign that it will change any time soon, particularly under the government run by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) that took power last summer in a landslide election victory.

The DPJ’s dovish tendencies were underscored by the fact that one of its first decisions after it took power was to recall an MSDF fleet engaged in refueling of U.S. and allied war ships in the Indian Ocean in support of the Afghan war.

Under the SDF rules of engagement, use of arms is strictly limited to individual self-defense, and defense of other Japanese troops. Such inflexibility makes it hard for Japanese troops to be of any practical use in multinational peacekeeping operations, especially in areas of unrest and violence. Advocates of greater roles for Japan have long argued that Tokyo needs to change pacifist rules that were put in place after the war, but the pacifist tendencies in Japan makes it hard for such change to be implemented.