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WikiLeaks and Japan’s Security

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New Leaders Forum

WikiLeaks and Japan’s Security

Leaked cables obtained by WikiLeaks suggest a misguided attempt by the Japanese government to steer views on defence and security.

You may have missed this due to the deluge of news about the ongoing Fukushima nuclear incident, flooding in the United States, and of course the killing of Osama bin Laden. But WikiLeaks has been busy creating another splash, this time in Japan.

Much like the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel have done with their Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, the Asahi Shimbun has started publishing translations and analyses of US embassy cables that pertain to Japan. The Asahi received approximately 7,000 cables from WikiLeaks in January, some of which are being made publicly available online here.

To be sure, there have been no groundbreaking revelations in these leaks—so far. But assuming that the information in these leaks is genuine, there was one bit of information that I thought was still particularly noteworthy.

A cable from December 2008 appears to show the Japanese government’s efforts to intentionally inflate two numbers regarding the planned relocation to Guam of the controversial US air base in Futenma.  

First, an estimate for construction costs totalling a billion dollars for a road, which the United States ‘would not consider…an absolute prerequisite for the completion of the relocation,’ was added to the total cost of the Guam relocation ‘as a way to increase the overall cost estimate…and thereby reduce the share of total costs borne by Japan.’ (08TOKYO3457). As the Asahi points out, the cost burden for Japan under this arrangement would be reduced from two-thirds to less than 60 percent by increasing the total cost of relocation from $9.2 billion to $10.2 billion.

Second, the numbers of US Marines and their dependents to be transferred from Okinawa to Guam through this relocation process was also apparently exaggerated. The cable states that the transfer of 8,000 marines and 9,000 dependents ‘were deliberately maximized to optimize political value in Japan, but the two sides knew that these numbers differed significantly from actual Marines and dependents assigned to units in Okinawa (my emphasis added).’ (08TOKYO3457).

The goal of this chicanery was most likely to render these numbers more palatable to the Japanese public in order to push ahead with the relocation. However, this seems at best an unnecessary—and at worst self-defeating—manipulation by the Japanese government for three reasons.

First, whether this legerdemain had the effect of significantly increasing the support for the relocation is highly doubtful. A lower overall cost burden is better than a higher one, of course. But regardless of whether it is two-thirds or 60 percent, the majority of the costs would still be borne by Japan. The same logic can be applied to the number of relocated personnel as well, and one wonders how much better 8,000 really sounds to the Japanese public than 6,000 or 5,000.

Perhaps more importantly, though, knowingly deceiving the public through numbers that simply aren’t true ultimately hurts the government’s credibility. Although this revelation pales in comparison with the disclosure of secret nuclear weapons agreements between Japan and the United States during the 1960s, it nevertheless reinforces the already existing weariness of the public towards the secret dealings of government.

Above all, bloating the numbers in order to mislead the public fosters what I think has been a crucial flaw in Japan’s public discourse—a serious lack of public debate on national security. The issue of national security has been deemed off-limits in public discourse for the last several decades, partly owing to the strong antimilitaristic sentiment still alive among the Japanese public. This has been slowly changing following the changes in the external environment, but the issue of national security is still rarely debated in a public forum, much less made a serious issue in political campaigns.

The Japanese government should disclose accurate information regarding the costs that the public would be bearing for the relocation. Only then can we, the public, take the next step toward discussing critical issues of national security. Are the costs incurred for relocation cost-efficient in terms of securing Japan from external threats? What exactly are these threats, and how serious are they for the people of Japan? Is strengthening bilateral ties between Japan and the United States the most cost-efficient way to deal with these threats, or are different approaches such as strengthening other bilateral ties or fostering multilateralism better?

Secrecy may have been an important aspect of diplomatic negotiations for centuries, but it’s hard to justify this particular sleight of hand. The Japanese public is smart enough to process accurate details and come up with the answers to the questions regarding national security themselves—there’s no need to withhold information to ‘nudge’ us in the ‘right’ direction. Continuing to do so would only rekindle criticism that Japanese bureaucrats are paternalistic and elitist, which would be yet another distraction from the profoundly important issues facing this country.