TOKYO – A stronger military, a more assertive foreign policy and a bunch of new headaches for everybody – that’s what’s likely to come out of this weekend’s elections in Japan. Oh, and maybe a little more honesty about Japan’s peculiar brand of well-armed pacifism.
Yoshihiko Noda and the Democratic Party of Japan are certain to be swept from power in parliamentary elections on Sunday. A faltering economy and the future of nuclear power are among the main issues.
But for the first time in decades, national defense is playing a significant role in the campaign. Opposition leader Shinzo Abe, the likely next prime minister, has called for an increase in defense spending, easing constitutional restrictions on the military, and even changing the name of Japan’s so-called Self Defense Forces to something that sounds, well, more like a real military.
He also wants to get tough on the neighbors, which is what a lot of voters want to hear right now.
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Chinese surveillance vessels have been patrolling in or near Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, which China claims, almost daily since September (Japan scrambled F-15 fighter planes on Thursday when a Chinese aircraft flew into airspace over the islands). Earlier this week, North Korea test-fired a long-range missile over Japan’s southern islands, in direct violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
For country that has a Constitution that renounces war, Japan has a surprisingly large and well-equipped military, with 250,000 men and women and a defense budget that is sixth largest in the world. But the Constitution severely restricts how those forces can be used, and with Japan’s militarist past still not forgotten, defense has been a subject most often avoided in polite company, not to mention political campaigns. Defense spending has been capped at 1 percent of GDP, and that’s that.
But much of that changed with the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. More than 100,000 troops were rushed to the region to search for victims, clear rubble, and deliver aid and comfort to survivors. The popularity of the armed forces soared. Noda, the son of a Ground Self Defense Force enlisted man, became the first prime minister in the post-war era from a military family. He took office in September last year.
It’s good that defense issues are being discussed in the current campaign, says Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, in Tokyo.
“It’s involving a broad range of the population because people now are aware of what’s going on – they are aware of the North Korea missile threat, they are aware of the rise of China and its consequences. They know there’s a problem. But they don’t know where we stand because they haven’t understood the military capabilities that we have,” Michishita says.
Assuming he takes office, Abe is likely to push through several reforms with little opposition. That includes establishing a National Security Council to streamline decision-making, and abolishing the requirement for a separate new law each time Japan wants to send peacekeepers abroad (Japan is a strong supporter of U.N. peacekeeping missions).
Easing the restrictions on so-called collective self-defense also seems to have wide support. The current interpretation of the Constitution forbids Japanese troops from using force unless they themselves are directly attacked. That means they would not be permitted to aid, say, American or any other friendly troops even if those troops were being attacked right next to the Japanese. Although it’s unlikely Abe will be able to amend the Constitution itself, he can drop the collective-defense prohibition with a simple re-interpretation.
He’s unlikely, however, to succeed in changing the name of the Self Defense Forces (to National Defense Military) or other military terminology. That’s too bad, says Michishita, because much of Japan’s military language is misleading. The terminology dates to the 1950s, when the Japanese government was quietly (with American encouragement) re-instituting its armed forces after the disaster of World War II.
Today, for example, Japan has a powerful navy, with modern destroyers, state-of-the art attack submarines and large, flat-deck helicopter carriers; yet it still goes by the somewhat benign “Maritime Self Defense Force.” Infantry units are not known as infantry – they are called “normal” units. Artillery units are not known as artillery – they are called “special” units. Helicopter carriers are not “carriers” – they are “helicopter destroyers.”
“We always criticize China about not being transparent, but we lie about our own armed forces,” says Michishita. “These are full-fledged armed forces, but we say this is not a military force. How can civilian control in this country be effective if people don’t know what they have because they being are misled? As long as we are dishonest about this, nobody will trust us.”
It’s also unclear if Abe will be able to achieve the rest of his agenda – or even if his election will make Japan safer or improve relations with its friends and neighbors.
Abe is known as a hard-liner and a nationalist favorite, and has already aroused the suspicions of China. In October, Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 of Japan’s worst war criminals are enshrined, along with thousands of other war dead. That enraged the Chinese, many of whom believe Japan has never really repented for its wartime conduct.
What’s more, Abe has said he wants to station government workers on the Senkaku Islands to reinforce Japan’s claim – the tiny islands have been uninhabited for more than 80 years and previous administrations have worked to keep it that way. Putting folks ashore is certain to provoke an unpleasant and potentially dangerous response from China.
Abe also has called for re-examining a landmark government statement in 1993 that accepted responsibility for recruiting or coercing thousands of so-called comfort women in Korea during World War II. That move would surely enrage the South Koreans, with whom the Japanese have been feuding since last summer over two tiny islands in the Sea of Japan.
All of which bring us to the Americans, who have mixed emotions about Abe. Although Abe is a strong supporter of the U.S. alliance, the American are in no hurry for a confrontation with China. The U.S. has said the Senkakus fall under the U.S.-Japan security treaty that obliges the U.S. to come to Japan’s aid in case of attack, but have pointedly said they take no position on who actually owns the islands.
Abe briefly served as prime minister in 2007 and generally sought to improve relations with China. But that’s different now and Americans worry that Abe fails to understand the nuances of U.S. policy, says Jeffrey Hornung, an East Asia security specialist with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Honolulu.
“People say that, ‘Well, last time he came in as a hawk but he moderated his views when he came into office.’ But that’s not the case this time. Now it’s an Abe that’s no-holds-barred,” says Hornung.
“If he wants to take a harder stance on China, especially the Senkakus, and if his harder stance does provoke a (strong) response from China t, is he then going to look to the U.S. and say, ‘Hey aren’t you going to back us up?’ asks Hornung. “And then if the U.S. doesn’t then send an aircraft carrier or whatever Abe expects, you will see people starting to question the alliance. And that’s going to cause a mess.”
Still, it could be worse. Nationalist candidate Shintaro Ishihara, who sparked the Senkaku crisis by trying to buy and develop the islands when he was governor of Tokyo earlier this year, has his own military agenda: Japan, says the 80-year-old Ishihara, should do computerized testing of nuclear weapons. Ishihara, mercifully, is running a distant second.