This reform has been in the pipeline for a while now, and constitutes an administrative reform more than a policy reform: the new Defense Ministry will have its own budget, the ability to submit legislation without having to go through the Cabinet, and less concretely, symbolically raises Japan’s defense establishment not only in relation to other countries’ defense ministries, but also vis-a-vis Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, as a careful observer of these matters with whom I correspond regularly suggested, the Defense Ministry will have access to a better crop of recruits from elite universities than it had as the JDA.
In many ways, this legislation simply ratifies changes that the JDA has undergone over the past two decades. In particular, since the end of the cold war the JDA has gone from an agency that was effectively used to cordon the JSDF off from the Japanese political system to an organization staffed by security policy experts better able to manage Japan’s defense policy in a fluid and uncertain international environment. The JDA went from an agency staffed by bureaucrats seconded from the Foreign and Finance ministries to an organization in which a core group of young policy experts from within the agency rose to positions of prominence, improving the JDA’s ability to fight for preferred policies and secure an important seat at the table, particularly in discussions with the US.
Beyond the symbolic change from agency to ministry, the law passed last week makes “international peace cooperation activities” a fundamental mission of the JSDF, which means that for the first time in its history the JSDF’s core purpose necessarily involves missions outside of Japan. (Thanks to my aforementioned correspondent for comments on this change.) As with the elevation of the JDA, this simply makes the JSDF’s shift from a static defense force to an active force fit for overseas deployment de jure — it doesn’t actually change government policy, at least in the short term.
I think it’s imperative for the international media to break itself of the habit of conjuring up Japan’s post-war past whenever anything related to Japan’s changing international position comes up, as this CNN article does. Yes, we get it; Japan has a controversial past. But anyone paying attention over the past fifteen years would notice that Japan has gotten into the habit of contributing its armed forces to UN peacekeeping missions. Rather than hint at the specter of Japanese “remilitarization,” the international media should be talking about how this fits into a re-envisioning of Japan’s international role as a country that specializes, in part, in peacemaking and reconstruction missions abroad.
In any case, the big, fundamental change underlying both of these reforms is a greater willingness in Japan to study the changing international and regional environments and determine how changes impact Japan’s national interests. As this Yomiuri editorial on the Defense Ministry bill suggests, there’s plenty for Japan’s national security policymakers to consider.
Rather than worry about Japanese “remilitarization,” the proper response should be relief that Japan is finally moving positively in the direction of bearing a greater share of the burden to provide global peace and security.
Thankfully the DPJ, after some initial grumbles about this bill, came to its senses and largely supported a piece of legislation that not only makes sense, but is also consistent with the DPJ’s interest in a more autonomous Japan.