With the upper house election approaching in Japan, there has been movement in the ruling party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to conquer long-held national security goals such as creating a National Security Council that reports directly to the Prime Minister’s office. On June 7, Abe’s Cabinet approved a draft bill for submission to the Japanese Diet to formalize the reforms. This is seen a natural complement and predecessor to Abe’s greater goal of amending Japan’s constitution to allow the Self Defense Forces to have the ability to engage in collective self-defense and contribute to international peacekeeping efforts.
Creating an NSC in Japan is not a new concept. In fact, during Abe’s first tenure as prime minister in 2006-7, he pushed for a U.S.-style centralized body that would be based in the prime minster’s office – much like the White House’s National Security Council. At that time, Abe made a point to take on the bureaucracy’s role in national security issues. Shortly after taking office in 2006, Abe’s former chief cabinet secretary and ally, Yasuhiza Shiozaki insisted that, “The Prime Minister's Office should be strengthened as the control center for the whole state. The office will put forward policies based on strategic thinking."
It is also important to realize that Japan is not entirely starting from scratch with the creation of a centralized body to deal with national security issues. For three decades, from 1956 to 1986, Japan had responded to this need through its National Defense Council, which advised the Prime Minister’s Office on defense and security matters. More recently, Japan has relied on such advice coming from the Security Council of Japan, which is more of a collaborative advisory body on security issues that informs the Prime Minister. This body currently has nine permanent representatives across the Japanese bureaucracy and is chaired by Abe.
The problem with the current NSC in Japan is that the large size reduces instant and critical national security decisions affecting the different ministries. This leads to several streams of information arriving at the Prime Minister’s desk through separate channels. The information and advice is often contradictory and opaque, and this has resulted in chaotic and unclear decision making in the Cabinet.
Several incidents in the past few years have highlighted Japan’s need to centralize its bureaucrats on national security issues. For example, Japan’s lack of an efficient information flow caused a crisis in Abe’s decision-making on dealing with the kidnapped Japanese nationals earlier this year in Algeria (ten eventually were killed). Moreover, Tokyo has had its hiccups in getting accurate intelligence and real-time information during crisis periods with North Korea and also with regard to China and the East China Sea row.
Abe’s intentions during his first term to centralize national security decisions were cut short when he departed ignominiously after only a year in office. The second Abe administration has taken a much more cautious approach with national security reform during its first six months and has rightly focused its principal efforts on reigniting and realigning Japan’s beleaguered economy. Abe has made the shrewd decision to largely wait until after the upper house elections in July before embarking on the meat of such reforms, which will likely include the creation of the NSC and an attempt at constitutional revision.
Abe seems to have learned some lessons from his failures during his first tenure and has heeded the advice of his top cabinet ministers to lead with the economy. Taro Aso, deputy prime minister and finance minister, recently cautioned that the Cabinet has “persuaded Mr. Abe to set aside his pet interests and focus on the economy first” but noted that there remains concern amongst the opposition and vocal critics in China and South Korea that “once we get a victory in the upper house election, Mr. Abe might go in a different direction.”
Abe has laid out his case for a more centralized NSC to serve as a “control tower” in light of the shifting security environment in Northeast Asia. When addressing the NSC advisory board in May, Abe noted, “As the security environment surrounding Japan grows more severe, there is a need to establish a system as soon as possible to strategically, flexibly, and swiftly respond to the many foreign and security issues. The establishment of the National Security Council will be the first step toward a great turning point in the history of foreign and security issues in Japan.”
A remodeled NSC would be a much trimmer body with four representatives: the Prime Minister, the Chief Cabinet Secretary and the Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs. The lean NSC would be led by a National Security Advisor that reports directly to the Prime Minister and is supported by a staff (similar to the U.S. model). Ideally, this reform would reduce bureaucratic silos and facilitate more efficient decision-making.
The current bill likely will have to wait until the fall before it gets an approval stamp by the Diet and is able to be enacted. Even if it gets to this point, questions remain about the efficacy of such a renewed body. One major concern is the lack of national security and intelligence experts to support and supplement a renewed NSC. Another worry is the potential isolation of ministries currently included under the chapeau of the NSC – including the Finance Ministry and the Transport Ministry. Finally, there are potential rifts that may arise between areas of responsibility between the Chief Cabinet Secretary and the Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs.
Despite these potential landmines, it is clear that the current system is not working in Japan and there is a pressing need for change on national security decision-making. Enacting the NSC also allows Abe to test the political waters on his greater goals of constitutional change – especially the contentious Article 9. And Japan can take comfort in the fact that a functional NSC takes time to develop and such reforms will be only an initial step in centralizing security decisions.