Japanese nukes revisited and Abe’s agenda

In the midst of reading my students’ essays today, I was continually distracted by interesting links that arrived in my inbox.

First, on the question of a Japanese nuclear arsenal, Brad Glosserman, executive director of Pacific Forum, the Honolulu-based Asia-Pacific research arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote a brief article (article in PDF) distributed by Pacific Forum explaining why Japanese development of nuclear weapons is unlikely anytime soon — and why talk of it is nothing to fear. As Glosserman concluded: “A nuclear weapon wouldn’t add to Japan’s defense capability but would do real damage to its core security interests. To their credit, the Japanese recognize that.” As I’ve written before, there is little reason for Japan to consider nuclear weapons as a short or medium term response to North Korea’s coming out of the closet, so to speak. The US nuclear deterrent is intact, the Japanese public shows little eagerness to develop nuclear weapons, and, above all, Japan, although it possesses the technical capabilities, would still have to find a way to pay for it. (Japanese public debt is well over 100 percent of GDP, based on the latest public debt figures here and GDP figures here [both Excel spreadsheets]).

Although the first month of the Abe Cabinet has focused extensively on foreign policy, first on Prime Minister Abe’s overtures to Seoul and Beijing and subsequently on the response to the North Korean nuclear test, the Abe Cabinet may ultimately be judged by how it addresses the sword of Damocles that is Japan’s public debt. If Japan is to ensure the continuation of its economic recovery, Abe must drastically shrink the public debt while deregulating the Japanese economy along the same lines as Koizumi. Doing so may require an increase in Japan’s consumption tax, which could single-handedly derail Abe’s government if not handled carefully — by which I mean coaxing the public all while placating the LDP. As Ko Mishima observes in the CSIS Japan Chair’s Platform newsletter, Abe heads an LDP that is fractured on policy questions and lacking the efficient policymaking apparatus that ruled Japan for decades, all the while facing a reinvigorated DPJ headed by the wily (albeit of late unhealthy) Ozawa Ichiro, who, in the soap opera that has been post-cold war Japanese politics, has gone from LDP secretary-general to kingmaker in the fractious coalition that ousted the LDP in 1993 to head of the opposition and later LDP coalition partner Liberal Party to current president of the opposition DPJ.

With Upper House elections in the summer of 2007, Abe has a short time period within which he has to convince the public of the sincerity of his vision to create a “beautiful” (and presumably less heavily indebted) country. As the Japan Times reports, the contest for the Upper House, where the LDP currently governs only with help from its coalition partner New Komeito, is very much open. To ensure that his government isn’t toppled by disappointing returns next summer, Abe will have to gain public support while assuaging wary LDP factions and zoku (policy tribes) — surely an unenviable task. As such, despite Abe’s encouraging performance out of the starting gate, it is simply too early to judge the long-term viability of his government.

I had an interesting conversation over coffee today with George Fussey, nominally of Eton but helping out at Kaiyo for the year. He arrived here two months ago — although he has been visiting for twenty years — and is a very keen observer of Japanese life. We talked about the Japanese respect for public space and consideration for other people. He related a story about how he was walking with a Japanese friend recently and saw a wildflower that he wanted to pick and bring home. He asked his friend if it would be ok. “Sure,” his friend replied, “But what if someone else wanted to walk here and see that flower?”

I was going to write more on this now, but I think the anecdote speaks for itself. I will, however, undoubtedly return to this thread over the course of the year.

Posting will likely be light or nonexistent tomorrow as I am going to Kamakura to see the apartment into which I plan to move next month.

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