The Japanese Self-Defence Forces (SDF) are preparing for the possibility of holding prisoners of war amid simmering tensions with China in a territorial dispute in the East China Sea.
Japan’s Ministry of Defence has asked the nation’s land, air and navy forces to prepare for the incarceration - or the joint retrieval, housing and putting to work - of prisoners of war, according to a report in Friday’s Yomiuri Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper, citing unidentified sources.
The article said preparations were directed at a possible confrontation in "Japan’s southwestern region, where many islands are spread over a considerable distance". There, the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan, are claimed both by China and Japan. Such prisoners would be Japan’s first POWs since the second world war.
This comes amid a deepening rift between the two governments over the territorial dispute. In the latest of several recent confrontations, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga denied a Chinese claim last week that Japanese aircraft came dangerously close to a Chinese air patrol near the island chain.
Japan warned in its annual white paper on defence last year that such brushes could lead to an unexpected “contingency”.
The report on Friday indicated that its armed forces are taking further steps in preparation for such an event. “It is conceivable that the SDF might capture enemy fighters on a remote island or at sea,” the Yomiuri Shimbun article read, referring to the country’s armed forces. “The three SDF branches would need to co-ordinate a joint operation to transport these prisoners of war to a safe location.”
Plans began in spring, according to the report and will culminate in the simulated capturing, transporting and housing of prisoners of war in a military exercise within this fiscal year, which ends in March 2015.
“The ministry is examining the pros and cons of using civilian buildings as housing facilities and making use of outsourced security services, as well as examining acceptable labour programmes for detainees and possible food provisions for followers of certain religions,” the report read.
Ryoko Nakano, a scholar of Sino-Japanese ties at the National University of Singapore, said the preparations should not be read as Japan turning more belligerent. “At the end of the day, it is an exercise to smoothly transport POWs and properly treat them in accordance with international law,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Military forces do all those exercises, but it does not mean that Japan is willing to start a war.”
Last month, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly called for a revision of the world’s third-largest economy’s pacifist constitution, which bars its armed forces from engaging in conflict overseas. Article 9 of Japan’s constitution in its current version renounces war as a means for settling disputes.
A press officer at Japan’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to e-mailed questions with regard to this article. China's Ministry of Defence did not respond to a written request for comment.