It is rare that Japan’s traditionally media-shy Self-Defense Force (SDF) would provide unfettered access to its troops. 

But as the deep thrum of an SH-60 helicopter fills the air, and we are brought onto the tarmac at the Yokosuka naval base, it quickly became clear that our months of requests to various levels of government ministries had opened a door to a very private organisation.

The SDF’s propensity to stay in the background of Japanese society is largely due to the fact that if you take a direct read of the country’s constitution, it should not exist.

Following Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, the US forced its leaders to sign an American-drafted constitution, within which is Article 9. 

As punishment for carrying out grievous acts of violence during wartime, the section pledged the country would "renounce the use of force to settle international disputes". It goes further to state that "land, sea and air forces would never be maintained".

We requested this helicopter flight to see just how far a departure Japan has taken from that constitution.

Twenty minutes out into the open waters of the Sea of Japan, and our destination came  into view. The Hyuga, the flagship naval vessel of the SDF, is the length of two football fields. With a water displacement of 13950 tons, it is a massive ship. Its flat-top deck can operate 11 helicopters, and we are told, could, if necessary, carry certain kinds of fighter jets.

Not since the Imperial Japanese navy has the country had such a formidable presence at sea. 

Anywhere else, the Hyuga would be classed as a "light aircraft carrier", but because of sensitivities over the constitution, Japan’s government has designated it a "destroyer".

'Word acrobatics'

Seiichiro Takagi, a defence analyst, described the inherent contradictions of the SDF’s existence, and the formidable weaponry it has amassed, as stretching the bounds of what is legal.

"It does take some interpretation acrobatics right? And their legitimacy is not so straightforwardly stated in the constitution. And this kind of situation is making people increasingly uneasy," he said.

We are very clear on our political policies about how to defend Japan. We are not aiming to become a military superpower.

General Shigeru Iwasaki, Japan’s chief of defence staff

In my years as a correspondent in Beijing, I had several conversations with Chinese PLA army generals over the very issue of what they saw as Japan’s "illegal military buildup".  Other neighbours, like South Korea, have also voiced similar concerns.

Japan has so far gotten around it with, again, some word acrobatics. The government does not call its force a "military" and the troops are not called "soldiers".  They are a "Self-Defense Force with serving members".

And that is how General Shigeru Iwasaki, Japan’s chief of defence staff, justifies its existence.

"I don’t at all think that the various weapons we have are offensive. We are very clear on our political policies about how to defend Japan. We are not aiming to become a military superpower."

Iwasaki met us in his office at defence headquarters in Tokyo. Dressed in a flight suit, the former SDF pilot was supposed to have been in an F15 fighter jet increasing his flight hours, but a threatened missile test by North Korea had kept him grounded.

While expressing disappointment at his cancelled ride, he says he was more worried about what he described as a dangerous and complicated security situation.

"The environment surrounding us … has more elements of instability compared to the period during the Cold War."

US-Japan relations

Indeed, Japanese fighter jets have had to scramble numerous times over incursions by Russia, with the two countries embroiled in a dispute over ownership of the Kuril islands or what Japan calls the Northern territories. Japan also has to deal with North Korea and its continued push to build nuclear arms.

Of more worry is another island chain, the Senkaku, or "Diaoyu" islands. Rich in fish and natural gas deposits, since last fall, China has been increasingly bold in disputing Japan’s control of them. 

Last year, F15 pilots flying out of Okinawa scrambled against Chinese jets or surveillance planes 306 times.

For those reasons, Iwasaki justifies the $52bn devoted this year to defence spending, the sixth largest expenditure of any nation in the world.

"When you look at the instability factors that exist around us, for example, China has been increasing its military spending by more than 10 percent year on year in the past 20 years. Their armament has grown to become a significant power."

The US-Japan treaty swears America to come to the protection of Japan. 

But shortly after imposing the constitution, concerns over China, North Korea, and the USSR, and the spread of "communism", forced a policy U-turn. And Americans quietly pushed for Japanese leaders to create their own force for defence.

What started in the 1950s as a reserve police unit became the SDF, which today has 240,000 active serving members.
And while the alliance still exists, with some 50,000 American soldiers based on Japanese soil - and despite its self-described "Asia-pivot" - massive budget cuts in Washington have many Japanese defence officials doubting whether the US has the ability or the desire to come to Japan’s aid.

"It is questionable whether the United States, when it is to protect another nation, would really protect it if the people do not have the will to defend their own nation. So, of course, Japan thinks that we should possess the minimum amount of self-defence capabilities," says Iwasaki.

'Pacifist Constitution'

The Japanese public’s view of the SDF has not always been favourable. After World War II, public opinion polls showed people in general came to embrace what became known as the "Pacifist Constitution". And the view was that a defence force was not only unnecessary, but a waste of taxpayer’s dollars. With the recent threats posed by neighbours, that view is shifting.

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, known for his hardline nationalism, is now proposing to put the SDF into what he describes as its "proper" place in Japanese society - by renaming it a military.

To the outside world, we call it a military force and to domestic audiences, we call it the SDF. The LDP is calling for a halt to such sophistry

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister

He and the governing party, the LDP, argue it would end the many years of contradictions.

"To the outside world, we call it a military force and to domestic audiences, we call it the SDF. The LDP is calling for a halt to such sophistry," Abe says.

At a time of fierce national debate over the name change, we were granted several weeks with the SDF – watching their fighter jets in action over the skies of the Senkaku, Diaoyu islands, and following the Ground SDF’s elite unit, the First Airborne Brigade on exercise, parachuting in sight of Mount Fuji.

Its members from the lower to upper ranks said that despite their lack of war experience, they believed they measured up in abilities to those in even the most war-seasoned of countries. 

Having spent more than a decade covering conflicts in places like Afghanistan, it was not hard to see a good degree of truth in that.

While many SDF members were guarded about sharing their views on whether they wanted to be made into a full military, the First Airborne Brigade’s top commander, Major General Tadao Maeda, was much more candid.

The boisterous general, who immediately came across as a leader that the "boots on the ground" would like, said: "From our standpoint, we are a military organisation. In that sense we would rejoice if we are made into a national defence army."

It was a reply spoken with pride, something that years in the background of society perhaps did not leave much space for.Such a transformation will involve a long process, including a change to the constitution. And as a result it remains a long way off.

But during our time with the SDF, we were given a sense that the force is now prepared to step into the limelight, and assume a more prominent role, putting an end to what has been, for decades in Asia, the biggest elephant in the room.

Watch the 101 East film The Pacifist War

Follow Steve Chao on Twitter @SteveChaoSC and on 101 East @AJ101East

Source: Al Jazeera