Japan considers its own NSC

This past weekend saw Prime Minister Abe move into the Kantei, meaning that he will now be on the job twenty-four hours a day. It is hard to believe that the head of government of a major developed democracy could spend the first month of his term living away from the Official Residence.

Abe’s move comes at the same time as a special committee of experts — chaired by Abe — begins meetings to consider how to create a Japanese National Security Council. A security council in some form is long overdue, because it will enable the Government of Japan to formulate more systemic responses to changes in the regional and global environments.

The question is what kind of NSC Japan should make. How much independent authority should it possess? Should it play a coordinating role as a opposed to a policymaking role?

These are questions that the US has grappled with since the NSC was created in the early years of the cold war — and as David Rothkopf’s Running the World shows, the US has never been settled on the proper role the NSC should play in the national security establishment. Much has depended on the personalities involved, both at the White House and in key cabinet posts.

There is no question that Japan will have to tackle similar issues if and when it establishes a national security council at the Kantei. But as Michigan political scientist John Creighton Campbell argues in an interview published in today’s edition of the English language Asahi, Japan would be wise not to move too far in the direction of executive centralization. He said:

The Kantei is not going to be big enough to control the policy information necessary for devising detailed policymaking and implementation in most areas. That means that the bureaucrats will have to be involved and the question is how to do it. I think there are lessons from Japanese-style management, which is based on having lower-level people involved in meetings and consultations before finally arriving at a decision. The leader’s role is not as obtrusive as the “man on a white horse” style that Americans like. We used to joke that in the United States we could reach a decision in a week but it takes a year to convince the lower levels to go along. In Japan, making the decision takes a long time but it can be implemented quickly because everyone had participated. That is an oversimplification, of course, but I do think Abe and his circle are ignoring some successful Japanese approaches and overvaluing our rather peculiar system in the United States.

Perhaps the best administrative reform Japan can make to its national security establishment — and its policymaking apparatus in general — would be to ensure that ministerial and vice ministerial portfolios are distributed to policy experts in the governing party and not to the most senior party member in line for a promotion. There has been a move in this direction in recent years, and it should continue.

That should be the national security council Japan aims for: a panel of strong, knowledgeable cabinet ministers in firm control of their ministries, supported by a staff of experts at the Kantei as they formulate Japan’s grand strategy and set clear goals for what role Japan intends to play in the US-Japan alliance, in the region, and in the world — and how it fulfill its duties in these various capacities.

Unless this exercise results in an answer to that nagging question, it’s hardly worth the effort.

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