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How Japan’s Security Reformers Undermine Their Own Cause

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Tokyo Report

How Japan’s Security Reformers Undermine Their Own Cause

The Japanese public is not against security reform, per se — but is against the illiberal agenda of many would-be reformers.

How Japan’s Security Reformers Undermine Their Own Cause
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Rikujojieitai Boueisho

In a security environment more severe than anything Japan has faced since the end of the Cold War, what is holding Japan back from more aggressively removing constitutional and legal restrictions on its ability to defend itself?

According to realist logic, states should respond to the rise of new threats – and threats abound in Japan’s neighborhood: China, North Korea, and Russia – by internally balancing and/or externally balancing. Though during the Cold War period Japan could rely on U.S. self-interest to provide a security guarantee, but under Donald Trump’s deal-making style of global leadership, all bets are off. This should only increase the importance of internally balancing. Usually internal balancing refers to changes in military doctrine or increasing the defense budget, but in Japan’s case it also means creating a legal framework for Japan to more proactively defend itself. And yet, despite the hyperbolic rhetoric when Shinzo Abe came to power for a second time in December 2012, we have seen only incremental changes.

In a recent article in International Affairs, Shogo Suzuki and Cory Wallace argue that the biggest barrier to more aggressive security reforms is the political “baggage” of the security reformers themselves. Ironically, the greatest domestic and political challenge to securing Japan is the very individuals who are most sincerely concerned about securing Japan. Despite the Japanese public’s understanding of the necessity of security reforms, these reformers’ association with illiberal positions on other political issues makes it very unpalatable for the Japanese public to support any part of their agenda.

The security implications of Japan’s rising nationalism have been discussed extensively in the context of Japan’s external relationships, most notably with China and with South Korea. But Japan’s rising nationalism, an eclectic, explosive cocktail of historical revisionism, authoritarian values, emperor veneration, and militant hawkishness, has an equally serious impact on the relationship between Japan the state and Japan the people. In short, “revisionists themselves, and not just an antimilitarist or resource-sensitive public, constitute a major barrier to the pursuit of a more responsive, flexible, and ‘realist’ foreign policy.”

To get a more concrete sense of the security reformers’ broader agenda, consider the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) 2012 draft constitution, which was drafted when the LDP was in opposition and had an ideologically narrower base. Not only did the LDP propose removing the second paragraph of Article 9 (the “peace” clause) and recognizing the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) as a military or national defense force, they also wanted to formally make the emperor the head of state, restore traditional values of respect, strengthen the traditional family, and ban groups that would harm social order. Not all security reformers fall into this ideological bucket – but many do. And such illiberalism is rightly regarded with suspicion.

The evidence that Suzuki and Wallace amass to highlight the public’s ambivalence toward the security reformers speaks for itself. On generic constitutional change (not specific to Article 9), Asahi Shimbun survey reports that opposition to constitutional change has surpassed support for change for the first time in three decades under Abe. According to Nikkei polls, opposition to constitutional change outweighed support in 2015 for the first time since 2004 (when polling began). Perhaps most remarkably, “Four surveys between October 2016 and April 2018 found that, within the same sample, support for constitutional revision under Abe was 14-20 percentage points lower than generic support for revising the constitution.” 14-20 percentage points!

This is an important wake-up call to Japanese politicians: the Japanese public is not as apathetic or as unconcerned about security as a monolithic narrative about Japan’s “pacifism” or Japan’s “peace identity” would paint them to be. Japanese citizens understand the severity of the new dangers their state faces, and appreciates the utility of military force – or at the very least, military preparation. What the Japanese public disdains are the other agenda items the security reformers are trying to push.

For the sake of Japan, it is time for the security reformers to recognize that there is no turning back the clock on Japan’s progressive development. These reformers’ tireless efforts to make Japan safer are commendable, but their obsession with outdated values and rewriting history is not. It’s time for the reformers to get their priorities straight, and became a political force that the Japanese people, living in the contemporary age with modern, liberal sensibilities, can support without a litany of qualms and caveats.

Download Suzuki and Wallace’s International Affairs article, “Explaining Japan’s response to geopolitical vulnerability” here, available for free until September.