Issue 26 - Article 14

Japan's humanitarian assistance

April 2, 2004
Makiko Watanabe, formerly JICA

Japan’s humanitarian assistance dates back to 1953, when the government started funding UN relief work for Palestinian refugees. Since then, Japan has provided a vast amount of assistance worldwide, including financial aid, emergency supplies and personnel. This was primarily in response to natural disasters: Japan only became actively involved in conflict-related emergencies in 1992. Legally, humanitarian assistance for natural disasters remains distinct from humanitarian assistance in response to conflict. Nonetheless, Japan is starting to play a larger role in post-conflict environments, such as post-war Iraq, where Japanese troops were deployed in January 2004.

The legal framework of Japanese humanitarian assistance

The Law Concerning the Dispatch of Japan Disaster Relief Teams (JDR Law) was introduced in 1987. Although the JDR Law provides a comprehensive approach to international disaster relief, the scope of assistance is restricted to natural disasters, and man-made disasters except those arising from conflict. JDR Teams have been sent to major disaster areas worldwide, especially in developing countries, to carry out rescue operations, provide medical care and undertake rehabilitation work. JDR Teams comprise rescue workers, medical teams and experts in disaster response and reconstruction.

To ensure a swift and flexible response, Japan maintains a standby roster of rescue personnel and a registration system for medical teams; relief teams can be dispatched within 24 hours of a request for assistance, and medical teams can be ready to move within 48 hours.

The outbreak of the Gulf war in 1991 led to widespread domestic discussion about Japan’s role in conflict-related disasters. The following year, the Japanese government enacted the Law Concerning Cooperation for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (PKO Law), which allows Japan to engage more fully in UN peacekeeping and international humanitarian relief operations, including the dispatch of Self-Defence Force (SDF) units. PKO Law permits the following activities in relation to humanitarian relief:

  • medical care including sanitation;
  • search and rescue or repatriation assistance;
  • the distribution of food, clothing, medical supplies and other necessities;
  • construction of facilities or equipment to accommodate affected people;
  • rebuilding facilities and equipment damaged by conflict; and
  • restoring natural environments where they have been damaged by conflict.

This legal provision has, however, been rarely used: SDF medics were sent to Rwanda in 1994 and the SDF provided air transport for refugee assistance in East Timor in 1999, but no civilian doctors or relief personnel similar to JDR Teams have been dispatched under this law.

The policy context

The introduction of the PKO Law reflected a growing recognition within the Japanese government that conflicts not only destroy the products of long-term development, but also greatly hinder future development. As such, the government highlights the important role of development assistance as a means of dealing with conflict.

Numerous policy statements have spoken of the need for comprehensive assistance and a seamless transition from humanitarian relief to post-conflict reconstruction. Japan’s Medium-Term Policy on Official Development Assistance, issued in 1999, identified conflict and development as a priority issue.

It emphasised that ‘Japan must play an active role in conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction’, and outlined key activities, such as promoting good governance as a means of conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance to neighbouring countries affected by refugee inflows, the resettlement and social rehabilitation of refugees and former combatants, landmine clearance and strengthening emergency medical systems.

In July 2000, Japan announced its Action from Japan on Conflict and Development in response to the Miyazaki Initiative on conflict prevention agreed by the G-8 countries in July 2000. The Japanese statement stressed the importance of timely assistance so as to eliminate the gap between humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts. It also spoke of the need for close collaboration with Japanese NGOs as well as private firms and the media.

The emphasis on assistance in response to conflict has been further strengthened following the attacks on the US in September 2001. Japan’s principal policy statement on ODA, Japan’s Official Development Assistance Charter, revised in 2003, says that ‘the objectives of Japan’s ODA are to contribute to the peace and development of the international community, and thereby to help ensure Japan’s own security and prosperity’.

It notes that addressing new development challenges such as peace-building is ‘an urgent need’, and that ‘preventing conflicts and terrorism, and efforts to build peace … have become major issues inherent to the stability and development of the international community’. It lists peace-building as one of four priority issues (the other three are poverty reduction, sustainable economic growth, and global issues like the environment and disease).

ODA and humanitarian assistance

In line with these policies, the Japanese government has increased its budget allocations for peace-building and humanitarian assistance. This is despite a general downward trend in ODA overall. In 2001, for example, Japan’s total humanitarian assistance was $212 million, or 2.1% of total ODA budget of $9.8 billion. In 2004/05, the ODA budget had decreased by 20% compared with 2001, to $7.8bn; of this, humanitarian assistance and post-conflict reconstruction aid accounted for over $735m – more than 9.4% of total ODA. Allocations include over $459m for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan; over $28.5m for landmine removal and support for landmine victims; over $77m for refugee assistance through UNHCR; over $28.5m for other UN agencies; and over $142m to support humanitarian assistance by Japanese and local NGOs.

Geographically, Asia receives over 50% of Japan’s total ODA. Humanitarian assistance, however, has been extended to conflict-affected countries around the world. Some of the major contributions in the last five years include:

  • Assistance for East Timor: a total of $190m during 1999–2005, of which over $30m was spent on humanitarian aid (medicine, tents, blankets), support for humanitarian NGOs and the transport of supplies.
  • Assistance for Afghanistan: a total of $560m during 2001–2003, of which over $120m was allocated to humanitarian assistance, including the provision of food supplies, shelter and health services.
  • Assistance for Sri Lanka: a total of $1 billion has been pledged for 2003–2006. So far, $260m has been provided for health care through UNICEF.
  • Assistance for Iraq: a total committed of $100m for 2003–2004 for humanitarian assistance. Aid includes the provision of medical and food supplies, rehabilitation of key infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, ports, water and electricity systems, refugee assistance and food for work. An additional $320m has been provided to Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. Over $500m-worth of assistance has been pledged for reconstruction efforts until 2007.

ODA is primarily administered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), which manages approximately 60% of the total budget. Other involved line ministries include the Ministry of Finance. In terms of humanitarian assistance or conflict-related assistance, there are three main sources of funds: MoFA, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC). JICA is in charge of grant aid and technical assistance, JBIC is in charge of administering loans, and both fall under the portfolio of MoFA, although JBIC is also under the Ministry of Finance.

Most humanitarian assistance is channelled through UN agencies; in 2001, Japan was the second-largest donor to WFP and UNHCR. Japan is now starting to increase its support for NGOs and to diversify its areas of assistance. This reflects a growing recognition of the need for comprehensive assistance from humanitarian relief to post-conflict reconstruction.

Future challenges

Ensuring a swift response PKO Law stipulates that the dispatch of humanitarian relief personnel in response to conflict-related emergencies requires a request from the UN or another relevant international organisation, as well as approval from the Japanese cabinet. This takes between one and two months, and so acts as a major hindrance to the swift dispatch of relief or medical personnel. By contrast, JDR Teams are dispatched within 24 to 48 hours.

Thus, humanitarian assistance to conflict areas has primarily been limited to funds channelled through international organisations or NGOs and in-kind contributions. If Japan is to realise more ‘visible’ and effective humanitarian assistance, either the process needs to be simplified, or the law has to be amended to enable JDR Teams to be sent to conflict areas.

Increasing public understanding of the need for humanitarian assistance

The Japanese public is relatively supportive of Japan’s commitment to ‘civilian’ humanitarian assistance. There is, however, strong opposition to the dispatch overseas of SDF units, and this has only increased with the killing of Japanese diplomats in Iraq in November 2003. The deployment of SDF troops to Iraq in January 2004 has been controversial. If the Japanese government is committed to expanding its humanitarian assistance based on collaboration between Japanese civilians and the SDF, then it needs to encourage a deeper understanding of the necessity for such assistance among the Japanese people.

Humanitarian assistance is associated with risks, physically and politically. The government should engage in a thorough dialogue with academics, the media and the public on its future policy on humanitarian assistance.

Strengthening the monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian assistance

Too much emphasis on the speediness and volume of assistance leads to poor-quality and possibly inappropriate implementation. While increased humanitarian assistance is welcome, it has outgrown the human resources and knowledge available in Japan. It is thus crucial that Japan strengthen its monitoring and evaluation mechanisms for humanitarian assistance.

This has been done for JDR activities in response to natural disasters since 2002, and needs to be extended to conflict-related relief activities. Doing so would not only improve future assistance, but disclosure of the results would deepen the public’s understanding of the humanitarian aid project and increase the government’s accountability.

References and further reading

For more on Japan’s ODA programme, see the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website:

Other useful sites include:

  • OECD:
  • Japan International Cooperation Agency:
  • International Peace Cooperation Headquarters (the government body which administers Japan’s international peace cooperation activities and contributions):
  • Japan Platform (a partnership between Japanese NGOs, businesses and government):

See also:

Japan’s Official Development Assistance Charter (2003) and Japan’s Medium-Term Policy on Official Development Assistance (1999), Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

White Paper on Official Development Assistance 2002:

Research Study on Peacebuilding, Institute for International Cooperation, Japan International Cooperation Agency, 2002. The Executive Summary is available at:


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