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News Navigator: Why is civilian control important?

Self-Defense Forces troops (Mainichi)

The Mainichi answers common questions readers may have about civilian control, amid suggestions that the system has not been functioning properly in Japan.

Question: There has been criticism that civilian control isn't functioning, but what exactly is civilian control?

Answer: It has to do with the line of thinking in democratic countries that politics takes precedence over the military. Civilians, or the citizens of that country, hold sovereignty, or the right to rule the country, and thus control the military.

Q: Exactly how do citizens control the military?

A: In Japan, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) as an armed organization are controlled by elected Diet members through the Cabinet, a body that has won confidence from the legislative branch. The prime minister serves as the top commander. Commanding the SDF under him is the minister of defense.

Q: Why is civilian control important?

A: Because an armed organization with the power to harm people could restrain the freedoms and rights of the public if it wanted to. In countries with strong militaries, there have been cases in which the military has detained politicians and taken over government organizations. There are also sometimes coups d'etat to overthrow the government.

Q: Has Japan always had civilian control?

A: Before World War II, sovereignty lay with the emperor, and there was no clear division between politics and the military. There were cases in which the military refused to listen to the government on the grounds that it received instructions directly from the emperor, and where members of the military became prime ministers and started to surge ahead on their own. Even when Japan invaded other countries and the number of victims increased, members of the military concealed information, bogging down the war. After World War II, sovereignty was transferred to the people. Article 66 of the Constitution of Japan states, "The Prime Minister and other Ministers of State must be civilians." In discussions on revising the Constitution, some have put forward the opinion that civilian control should be written into the supreme law.

Q: Is the SDF being properly controlled in Japan?

A: Documents that the minister of defense ordered a search for based on a request from the Diet were found within the SDF, but were not reported for more than a year afterward. There have been similar problems in the past, and skepticism has arisen that it is in the nature of the SDF to hide information just like the former Imperial Japanese Army did. It has been pointed out that there needs to be a change in the way of thinking about information management and disclosure.

(Answers by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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