Japan’s long road to normalization

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff early in the Bush administration, has an op-ed on the occasion of Abe’s visit that title of which says it all: “Asia’s Overlooked Great Power.” (Hat tip: Project Syndicate)

Most of Haass’ essay is innocuous, typical proposals about more regional cooperation and a more apologetic stance on the history question, but one point he made strikes me as problematic.

He writes, “Intellectuals, journalists, and politicians are now saying and writing things about Japan’s role in the world that were unthinkable a decade ago. It is a question of when, not if, the Japanese amend Article IX of their constitution, which limits the role of Japan’s armed forces to self-defense.”

I don’t disagree with the former point. One of the more interesting pieces of Japan’s normalization has been the normalization of the security policy debate, with the removal of taboos on what security policies can be considered and an eagerness to discuss the regional and global security environments. But a more robust security debate has not necessarily resulted in — nor resulted from — an abiding change how the Japanese people think about their nation’s role in the world. While fears of North Korea have enabled the Japanese government to deepen missile defense cooperation with the US, it is unclear the extent to which the abductions issue — as opposed to direct concerns about North Korea’s ballistic missiles and nuclear arsenal — has shaped Japanese public opinion on North Korea. And beyond North Korea, the Japanese people aren’t exactly clamoring for their country to take on more risky missions abroad that could result in combat deaths.

Will this reluctance ultimately give way?

I don’t think so. The process of normalization has not been, and will not be, a linear process. It has proceeded with baby steps and the occasional step backwards — and lots of standing still. While the younger generation of politicians, bureaucrats, and commentators has shown itself to be far more willing and eager to see a more robust Japanese global role, they operate in a policy environment in which change happens slowly and in which compromise is a matter of course. And there are a number of politicians who may favor a more prominent Japanese role abroad, but would prefer to be a European-style “soft power” great power. (I suspect that that stance will not be tenable given Japan’s highly uncertain regional environment.)

As such, Haass should not be so quick to assume that constitution revision is a foregone conclusion. Given falling support for revision and given that Abe’s government may not last the year, Article 9 may live long beyond the sixtieth birthday that it is celebrating this year. I am convinced that re-interpretation is far more likely, but while re-interpretation of the prohibition on the right of collective self-defense would resolve some of the ambiguity surrounding Japan’s defense role, especially in the US-Japan alliance, doubts would remain — and doubts mean that every proposed action (outside of actions requiring immediate response, i.e. a missile launch) will be subject to endless debate in the Diet, parsing whether the proposed mission fits with the new interpretation.

So change is happening, and will continue to happen, but not in the direct, clear-cut, expeditious manner expected by Haass.

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