Why on earth does the defense minister of one of the world’s biggest defense spenders and ally of the world’s greatest military power need to have unique pipelines to other governments? If she calls through normal channels, are they going to put her on hold?
It is this cloak of meekness that Japan needs to shed if it is going to be taken seriously as a security provider. (Oh, and the sensitivity that leads a defense minister to resign after stating facts that are acknowledged more or less universally outside of Japan — but then doing that would mean “[sticking] to dry, strategic arguments,” as Asahi’s Tensei Jingo column warns us not to do.)
This whole sorry episode — including the trumpeting of Defense Minister Koike’s foreign network — shows just how far Japan has to go before it can be called a “normal” country. For all the new laws, for the dispatches of the JSDF abroad (including the ASDF into the line of fire in Iraq), for all the rhetoric emanating from the government, the thinking of the Japanese people remains thoroughly steeped in the sentiments of “one-country pacifism.” The Japanese people remain deeply uneasy about all things martial, even as they benefit from the US Military’s ensuring that Japanese consumers enjoy access to Middle Eastern oil.
I recognize that the contradiction makes many Japanese uncomfortable — I discussed this here — but rather than just pausing to acknowledge the contradiction, and then carrying on as always, Japanese leaders will have to face up to reality, to stop indulging in “compassion for the people who suffered under those mushroom clouds” and start focusing on how they can actually ensure that no people need suffer the same fate again. Chances are that resolutions and high-minded statements of principles will not be enough to do it. There is a place for remembering the events of August 6 and August 9, 1945, but memory and sentiment cannot be the whole of the story.
This is the problem with the argument made in recent years by Kenneth Pyle, Michael Green, and others that Japan is the consummate realist: I do not disagree that Japan has benefited from the leadership of some extraordinary strategists since it modernized, but they have operated largely out of sight of the Japanese people, and as a result the people have little appreciation for the strategic considerations that have guided Japan’s actions in the international system. I recognize this is a problem for many countries, but the problem seems especially acute in Japan. Look at the “awakening” on North Korea that has occurred over the past decade. While the 1998 Taepodong launch was important, while nuclear fears are important, both pale in comparison to public sentiment on the abductions (explained in part but not entirely by the government’s emphasis on the issue). It has taken a soft, sentimental issue for the Japanese people to pay attention to a threat next door.
For many countries, even for many democracies, this would not be a problem, but in Japan security and defense policy are less insulated from public sentiment than in other democracies; indeed, in security and defense policy the government is uniquely vulnerable to public pressure, as the Kyuma resignation illustrates. While Kyuma’s resignation was not about defense policy in particular, it was about defense policy in general, including how Japan should think about nuclear weapons — and even how Japan should think about its alliance with the US. A foreign policy tied to public sentiment is dangerous, vulnerable to either undershooting or overshooting, as even the US has learned in the years following 9/11, with considerable costs in blood and treasure.
Meanwhile, the Kyuma affair shines light on the problems of history. “Nuclear weapons do not fall from the sky of their own accord,” notes Asahi. “People make them, and people release them on other people’s orders.” True and true. But what about the people who launch wars of aggression on an entire region? And what about people who wage war with no regard to the laws of war governing the treatment of prisoners of war? And what about people who are willing to sacrifice the lives of civilians in order to continuing waging their war?
Indeed, Asahi‘s column is a great example of how pacifists have furthered the interests of Japan’s hypernationalists, because the history of Imperial Japan’s aggression becomes obscured by Japan’s suffering from American bombing. A responsible column would have, even while condemning the US for the bombing, spared at least a sentence to criticize the government in Tokyo that had laid Okinawa to waste and was prepared to do the same for the rest of Japan in order to resist the US.