Citing the terrorist threat to Japanese citizens abroad, the parties of Japan's ruling coalition are set to kick off debate on whether to reduce limits on the use of force by the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to allow them to mount hostage rescue operations.
The discussion comes after the deaths of two Japanese citizens at the hands of the so-called Islamic State (IS) militant group.
Under the current Self-Defense Forces Law, SDF participation in overseas operations is limited to "transport" functions, and SDF troops are only permitted to use lethal force in self-defense or during emergency evacuations.
Responding to the deaths of 10 Japanese nationals in a 2013 hostage crisis in Algeria, a Cabinet decision released in July the following year declared that "it is necessary (for the SDF) to be able to use weapons during rescues of Japanese nationals, as long as Japan receives permission from the host government." SDF deployment for a rescue operation should also be possible if the area concerned has no effective administration.
The decision furthermore stated that use of weapons in "police actions" like rescue operations does not violate the ban on use of military force overseas under the Japanese Constitution.
"The Japanese people are concerned about the problem of what we can do in times such as these," Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary General Sadakazu Tanigaki stated on Feb. 3, shortly after journalist Kenji Goto was murdered by IS. "It's important that we discuss this problem in great detail."
The July Cabinet decision, however, is limited to cases where the "host government has continuing and effective authority." In the most recent crisis over Goto and fellow hostage Haruna Yukawa, the Syrian government was first of all very unlikely to have granted Japan permission to send in an SDF rescue team. Second, the area where the two Japanese men were held is under IS control, and is therefore not under the "effective authority" of the Syrian government, making an SDF rescue attempt legally highly problematic.