Debating Japan’s (Lack of) Hospital Ships


Categorie: David Axe, Health, Japan, Naval |

USNS Comfort

USNS Comfort. Navy photo.


“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?” Kyle Mizokami asked in a War Is Boring post last week. “With its aversion to hard power and immense reservoirs of talent, technology, and cash, Japan should be the absolute king of soft power.

“The reason for no Japanese hospital ships rests squarely in Article 9 on the Japanese constitution,” writes Chris Albon at Conflict Health:

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 support to military forces on campaign.

Soft-power cruises reflect, in essence, the surplus capacity offered by hospital ships, Chris contends. As long as treating war casualties remains hospital ships’ main purpose, Japan cannot justify having them — and must find other way to exercise soft power.

But Kyle still has a point. Japan has found politically acceptable ways to build a powerful regional military despite the constitutional ban on armed forces. Mostly, Tokyo takes a rhetorical approach. There’s no “Japanese army.” Rather, the nation possesses a “Ground Self-Defense Force” that is nevertheless capable of offensive operations. The Japanese navy denies any interest in building aircraft carriers, but is quietly building a large force of “aviation destroyers” that are in fact carriers in everything but name. If Japan really wanted a major, ship-based soft-power capability, it could find the rhetoric to make them acceptable.

“Article 9 has little to do with it,” Kyle wrote in a follow-on post on his personal blog:

Japan does not have soft-power projection … because it does not have a mature foreign policy. It does not have a mature foreign policy because it does not have to, thanks to its alliance with the United States. Japan doesn’t have to innovate, or even copy new ideas in foreign policy and policy execution because it has taken all of its cues from America. It doesn’t have to build hospital ships, and conduct soft-power missions, because America does them, and Japan is content to just go along for the ride.


One Response to “Debating Japan’s (Lack of) Hospital Ships”

  1. Paul says:

    There is no reason constitutionally that Japan couldn’t do this. These sorts of ships could be operated by the Ministry of Health or whatever ministry it is that coordinates such things as disaster relief. They could even be civilian-owned and operated under contract with the government.

    I went on a medical mission to Belize a few years ago and saw personally the impact that even a small amount of modern medical services could mean to people who get none, and the love and respect given by those people in return. Building one or two of these ships and turning them loose on the ocean would burnish the reputation of the nation as nothing else could.

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