Features | Diplomacy | Security | East Asia

Japan’s Clumsy Perception Management

Japan’s security policies are widely misunderstood. With some better prioritizing, Abe could help correct that.

By Kei Koga for

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.

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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.

Because of these strategic and political difficulties, the Japanese government has sought to at least avoid abruptly upsetting the strategic status quo, focusing rather on strengthening its own defense capabilities. And so Japan’s security policy has been based more on its strategic calculation, which should be viewed separately from Abe’s personal political agenda and historical interpretation.

This trend is clearly illustrated in Japan’s defense planning. According to the recently published “Defense Posture Review Interim Report,” which is to be the basis for the new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) at the end of this year, Japan will emphasize eight priority areas for its defense, including strengthening Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, responding to attacks on remote islets, and responding to large-scale natural disasters. All of these objectives had already been emphasized in the 2010 NDPG. Japan’s plan to increase its defense capabilities, such as acquiring UAVs for ISR, attaining mobile deployment and amphibious capabilities to quickly respond to grave natural disasters, regaining control over Japan’s remote islets, and developing missile defense capabilities, is a logical extension of the 2010 NDPG.

Japan’s recent development of the Izumo-class helicopter destroyer is part of these strategic objectives. Although it is often cited as part of Abe’s assertive defense policy, the budget for the Izumo was allocated in 2010, and construction began in January 2012. Designed to replace the retiring helicopter destroyer Shirane, the Izumo will mainly serve as a multi-role platform for the objectives of the 2010 NDPG, including humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). Although substantial upgrades could theoretically allow the Izumo to be equipped with offensive capabilities, renewing its force structure and operation would be time consuming.

Admittedly, there are more controversial issues, including Japan’s constitutional revision, revising the status of Japan’s right to collective self-defense, and buttressing individual self-defense, namely acquiring preemptive strike capabilities. In terms of the constitutional amendments, Abe does not now plan to tackle the most controversial Article 9, but instead wants to change Article 96, which stipulates the political process of constitutional revision. Currently, a two-thirds majority or more of all members of each House with a simple majority in a national referendum is required. Abe seeks to change the voting requirement in each house to a simple majority.

On the collective self-defense issue, Abe’s Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security now aims to provide recommendations to allow the Japanese government to exercise that right, which would enable Japan to come to the aid of its allies and partners, especially the United States, and to fully participate in UN peacekeeping operations. It takes only a reinterpretation of the constitution to exercise the right, so the political hurdle is relatively low.

In addition, Shinichi Kitaoka, deputy chairman of the advisory group, argues that Japan’s individual self-defense on the basis of “Exclusively Defense-Oriented Policy (Senshuboei)” does not necessarily prevent Japan from attaining offensive capabilities. This means that the constitution allows Japan to undertake a preemptive attack, if this meets the legal condition to exercise its right to self-defense. Indeed, its legality has been claimed since 1956, when Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama argued that the Japanese Constitution does not force Japan to wait until it is attacked to exercise its right to self-defense. The argument has been repeated several times in Diet discussions.

Certainly, these issues will trigger heated debate. In reality, though, as objectives they are not easily achievable. According to the Mainichi newspaper, the Japanese public is now more concerned about the economy, with only 3 percent interested in a constitutional revision. At any rate, reinterpretation will not necessarily lead to the immediate exercise of the right for collective self-defense or the acquisition of offensive capabilities. The LDP’s partner, the New Komei Party is more cautious on the issue, and is not expected to adopt Abe’s posture. As some experts have already suggested, LDP needs to overcome a number of political hurdles, making it difficult to achieve Abe’s own security agenda, even if the LDP is secure until the next election.

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More than the development of Japan’s security policy, what is problematic is the uncertainty surrounding Abe’s future political posture toward Asia. To date, Abe has shown his realist face. The first test, whether he would visit the Yasukuni Shrine after the LDP’s election victory, was passed as he exercised restraint. And yet, from time to time, Abe and his ministers have shown their nationalist faces, triggering controversy each time.

For example, in April, Abe announced that he would “not necessarily follow the 1995 Murayama Statement,” to which previous Japanese governments had all hewed. The statement expressed “deep remorse” and offered an “apology” for the harm and suffering caused by Japan. Although the government confirmed in May that the Abe Administration would in fact support the Murayama Statement, domestic and international suspicion over Abe’s political intentions persist. Then, in July, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso seemingly endorsed the Nazi method of quietly changing the Weimar Constitution. This again stirred controversy, although Aso officially retracted his statement. Regardless of the government’s real intentions, these gaffes have obscured its political objectives. As a consequence, the Abe administration struggles to improve its international image even as it enjoys strong domestic support.

The cost of these controversies is high, as their negative effects spill over into other issue areas, especially security policies. Even though Japan’s security policy is fundamentally being shaped by changes in the international security environment and the strategic landscape in East Asia, the controversies create the perception that Japan is pursuing a right-wing agenda, diminishing international support for the policy. Some of the current U.S. criticism of Abe’s conservative swing illustrates this point, as do the barbs by China and South Korea.

To be sure, historical issues sometimes must be discussed, but they are often too complex and carry too much emotional baggage to be directly managed or resolved at the political level. Too often politicians create misunderstandings or make factual mistakes, in turn generating misperceptions. This not only affects relations between countries, it also encourages domestic nationalism. To avoid these misperceptions, grass roots discussions within Japan and beyond, including domestic and international academic research, are imperative.

Abe once remarked in an interview, “When I served as prime minister last time, I failed to prioritize my agenda. I was eager to complete everything at once, and ended my administration in failure.” Consequently, in his second tenure, Abe has made economic recovery his top priority. In the same way, Abe should learn from more recent lessons. Perhaps, rather than criticizing those who would call Abe “right-wing militarist,” Abe should prioritize the development of a security policy over historical issues and use diplomatic outreach to seek dialogues with neighboring states, including China and South Korea. In doing so, Japan could create a solid foundation of international support for its security policy shift.

Kei Koga is Assistant Professor of Public Policy & Global Affairs at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.