Japan’s Clumsy Perception Management
Image Credit: REUTERS/Ahim Rani

Japan’s Clumsy Perception Management

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Since September, Japan’s security policy has been subject to growing scrutiny ahead of the creation of the very first official Japanese security report, the “National Security Strategy,” as well as new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG). The debate began with the first meeting of the Advisory Panel on National Security and Defense Capabilities on September 12, 2013. In his opening remark, Abe declared that his government would “proactively contribute to securing peace, stability and prosperity of the world under the banner of proactive contribution to peace.” Japan has finally decided to pursue its long-desired “proactive pacifism” in promoting peace and security in an international setting.

One would think this initiative would meet with wholehearted approval. In fact, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, known as a “hawkish” conservative leader, has been negatively perceived because of his revisionist stance on history. He has already been the subject of critical reports in major liberal newspapers in Japan and around the world, including The New York Times, Financial Times and Japan Times. Their concern has only heightened after Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory in the Upper House elections in July. This result ended the divided Diet, and now the LDP and its political ally, the New Komei Party, have 135 seats out of 242 in the Upper House and 325 out of 480 in the Lower House. The conditions are ripe for the LDP to push its own political agenda, including revisions to Japan’s Constitution.

Specifically, observers are concerned not only about Abe’s understanding of history, but also his security policies. They argue that his governance could swing Japan to the far right by taking credit for Japan’s economic recovery through his economic policy, “Abenomics,” and in turn winning public support for his conservative political agenda. Japan would then become a critical variable in the changing strategic landscape of East Asia, negatively influencing the direction of the regional security environment.

The analogy is interesting, and this is why many observers paid attention to whether Abe would visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on August 15 this year. Doing so would have ratcheted up the political tensions between Japan and its East Asian neighbors China and South Korea, making it much harder to restart high-level bilateral and trilateral dialogues. Consequently, Abe chose not to visit the shrine, to the disappointment of Japanese nationalists. Yet skepticism over Abe’s political motives remains.

The key question is this: How closely is Abe’s view of history linked to the recent development of Japan’s security policies? Simply put, the answer is “not very closely at all.” In fact, there has been strong continuity in Japan’s security policy over the past decade. The country has long sought to boost its hedging policy towards North Korea and China, while emphasizing defense burden-sharing with the United States.

The recent strategic dynamics in Northeast Asia are a case in point. While North Korea continues its nuclear and missile tests, the increased strategic uncertainty around the Senkaku Islands (Daiyutai for China) since 2010 has pressured Japan’s policymakers to reconsider the nation’s defense posture and increase its defense capabilities. Further, in the context of Japan’s decreasing defense budget (until 2012, at least) and the U.S. defense budget constraints caused by sequestration, Japan has become cautious about assessing the future strategic landscape in the region. This is partly because Japan’s strong defense capabilities with U.S. guarantees did not prevent China from continuously sending surveillance ships around the Senkakus, and Sino-Japanese political tension has yet to ease. In response, Japan has considered taking additional action to bolster deterrence.

However, these dynamics have been complicated by nationalist sentiment in Japan. In April 2012, in particular, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara gave the Japanese government a major headache when he declared his intention to purchase the Senkaku Islands from their private owner. If the government had let Tokyo buy the islands, Ishihara would likely have established facilities on the disputed territory, creating long-term issues for Sino-Japanese relations. Even nationalizing the islands would send negative diplomatic signals to China, at least in the short-term. Ultimately, thought, Japan decided that nationalizing the islands was the only feasible policy, even if inevitably created a diplomatic ruction.

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