Last week, the US Navy deployed USNS Mercy on a humanitarian deployment in the Pacific. The news prompted Kyle Mizokami of War Is Boring to rue Japan’s lack of soft-power humanitarian cruises of its own:
Here’s a question: why doesn’t Japan have its own version of the Pacific Partnership? Why doesn’t Japan have two former supertankers, converted to 1,000 bed hospital ships, and sail them from Africa to the South Pacific, delivering non-emergency humanitarian assistance? With its aversion to hard power and immense reservoirs of talent, technology, and cash, Japan should be the absolute king of soft power. Despite that, it displays an utter lack of imagination and a hesitation to copy even highly effective ideas. Yet again it prefers to just lend a hand to the Americans than do anything on its own.
Japan’s lack of hospital ships has nothing to do with a limited imagination or a hesitation to import good ideas from overseas. In fact, many would argue that historically Japan’s power came precisely from its willingness to adopt good ideas from other societies. No, the reason for no Japanese hospital ships rests squarely in Article 9 on the Japanese constitution.
Amongst other things, Article 9 requires that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” by the island nation. In other words, it is illegal for Japan to have a military. The nation’s Self-Defense Force is a civilian organization, with its members even allowed to quit at any time. Article 9 is a security guarantee to Japan’s neighbors. Without a standing military, the thinking goes, Japan can never threaten other countries with war.
What do hospital ships have to do with military aggression? Nearly everything. Hospital ships are an old concept and until a decade ago they had only one purpose: to provide medical supports to military forces on campaign. Floating hospitals are a requirement for amphibious operations. This is precisely the reason USS Kearsarge and USS Boxer, ships built to conduct amphibious landings, are excellent soft power providers: they contain massive medical facilities. These onboard hospitals were not originally designed to provide free surgeries to Nicaraguan children, but to give first rate trauma care to Marines storming the beach.
The building of a Japanese hospital ship could very easily be seen by its neighbors as preparation for a more militarily aggressive foreign policy. Many would argue the same should be said about China’s new hospital ship. Yes, it could conduct soft power operations, but it could also provide vital medical services during any amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.