Missing the point on Japan’s normalization

Using the occasion of Japanese Air Self-Defense Force pilots participating in live-bombing exercises with the US in the Marianas, Norimitsu Onishi of the New York Times has a prominently featured article in today’s edition (also on the front page, top of the fold of today’s IHT) on Japan’s shedding “military restraints.”

The NYT website also features a short documentary called Rearming Japan.

In general, Onishi’s article provides a fair summary of the contours of the debate, taking care to note, for example, that Japan, while ranking high on annual league tables of defense expenditures, has actually been letting its defense budget stagnate over the past decade.

And yet there are a few things that bear noting about this article.

First, Onishi premises the problematic nature of Japanese normalization on its “rattling nerves throughout northeast Asia.” And yet the only example Onishi provides to support this is South Korea’s recent launching of its first Aegis cruiser and President Roh’s comments about an arms race in the region. It seems that if concerns about Japanese normalization are so prevalent, Onishi might have been able to muster a few more examples to show it. (Devin Stewart at Fairer Globalization notes that if Onishi had talked to Southeast Asians, he would have found them more supportive of a more active Japanese security policy.)

Second, and this is a far more substantial problem, Onishi’s article and the companion video are lacking in context, both in terms of history and Japanese politics. Regarding the former, Japanese militarism was a product of political developments in Japan occurring at a given moment in history, when colonization and aggression were the hallmarks of great-power status. Just because Japan’s ultra-nationalists make this argument does not make it untrue (but it also does not excuse what Japan did). The idea that Japan is going to invade China again, mentioned by one of the interview subjects in the film, is ludicrous and divorced from the facts. With its stagnant defense budget that increasingly emphasizes high-technology air and sea platforms over the GSDF, which according to recent planning documents is set to see its numbers fall, the JSDF may have a hard time helping at the Snow Festival in Hokkaido, let alone invading China.

In terms of the domestic political context, while Onishi gets the change within the LDP right, thanks to an assist from Richard Samuels, he misses the far more significant domestic political change: the ousting of the Socialists from their position as the leading opposition party, the destruction of the Japanese left more generally, and the rise of the Democratic Party of Japan. He quotes DPJ Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio criticizing the government for violating the constitution in its activities in Iraq, but he misleadingly fails to mention that Hatoyama and his party are less concerned about Japan’s playing a more active role than they are concerned about Japan’s becoming to close to the US, which they feel has become dangerously aggressive. The DPJ’s critique, in general, is not a pacifist one by any means, although former Socialists in its ranks still stand by that position. Rather, the DPJ rejects the argument made by former JDA chief Ishiba Shigeru in this article: “I think the Japan-U.S. security relationship should be as unified as possible, and our different roles need to be made clear.”

The DPJ, perhaps because opposition affords it the luxury of taking positions that could be more difficult to adopt in government, has emphasized Japan’s need for more independence from the US (I discussed one particularly articulate discussion of this here).

In other words, the debate is far more interesting than Onishi notes — it is by no means simply a matter of pacifists versus nationalists.

This raises the larger question, addressed by Samuels and J. Patrick Boyd in the monograph discussed in this post, of why Japan tied its own hands in security policy in the first place. As they argue convincingly, it was a matter of the political balance within the LDP, with the pragmatic mainstreamers, who favored the Yoshida line, receiving assistance from the political opposition and public opinion in their fight against the LDP’s revisionists. But they sought limits not out of pacifism, but because it made good strategic sense. In other words, to adapt a Marxist concept, Japan’s postwar pacifism may well have been the superstructure that served as a more presentable face for the substructure, Japan’s assessment of its postwar interests as enshrined in the Yoshida doctrine.

With Japan’s interests changing as the balance of power in East Asia shifts, it is to be expected that Japan would reconsider its interests in the new era and adjust its grand strategy and defense priorities accordingly. The rise of the nationalist revisionists is one aspect of that, but their rise has been accompanied by the collapse of the left and the emergence of a political opposition that is also interested in seeing Japan’s grand strategy change. It may be useful to think of the situation once again as a matter of superstructure and substructure. Today, the superstructure of Japanese normalization is provided by Japan’s ultra-nationalists, who never cease cranking out material that leads Japan’s neighbors (and ally) to question normalization. The substructure, meanwhile, is once again shaped by a realistic assessments of Japan’s interests, threats, and opportunities. Having talked with enough officials in MOFA and the Japanese Ministry of Defense, as well as members of the Diet from both the LDP and the DPJ, it is clear that there are enough important policy makers in Tokyo who don’t buy the rhetoric of the ultra-nationalists even as they acknowledge that Japan needs a new doctrine that reflects contemporary realities and may require Japan’s acting as a security provider.

In light of these considerations, one has to ask why the NYT thinks this article is so important as to merit page-one coverage.

Is Japan really poised to threaten its neighbors anytime soon, if ever? Is Japan truly ready to follow the US into combat in the “arc of instability” (and refueling in the Indian Ocean, as important a mission as its been, does not count)? Is Japan really even close to possessing even a conventional deterrent in its showdown with North Korea? These are the questions one must keep in mind while reading this article. As unnerving as Japan’s ultra-nationalists are, for the moment they are still more of a menace, if that, to the Japanese polity than to Japan’s neighbors (see earlier posts on Abe here and here, and Sakurai Yoshiko and the ultra-nationalists more generally here).

3 thoughts on “Missing the point on Japan’s normalization

  1. ross

    Unlike the thrust of the article, it seems more shocking that this is the first time the ASDF has dropped live bombs. Also, the piece sensationalizes what are real changes in use of Japan\’s armed forces by burying the reality in two words \”Though flat.\” There is no spending growth in the defense budget and in fact, embracing missile defense has siphoned away yen to that effort, reducing other capabilities.


  2. Lyons Wakeman

    The NY Times is the newspaper of record in the US.I believe the critical passage in the article may be the one left out by the IHT version.\”Mr. Ishiba, the former defense chief, said the region’s distrust was softened by Japan’s alliance with the United States. But he acknowledged that Japan’s inability to come to terms with its wartime past restricted its ability to project power positively.“Unless everyone understands why we weren’t able to avoid that war,” Mr. Ishiba said, referring to World War II, “and what Japan did to Asia, it could be dangerous if we get power-projection capability.”\”What is at issue, I believe, is the status of the myriad unresolved history issues. These continue to affect and interfere with the development of a viable, stable security system in East Asia.A great deal must happen, not just in hardware and doctrine, before Japan can achieve military respectability.


  3. Well, Mr Wakeman, I\’d say the Wall Street Journal is the paper of record in the US, but that aside…I didn\’t realize anyone actually bothered to read Onishi\’s articles until I saw this one commented on in a few blogs. I simply skipped it over on reading the byline; I guess I\’ll have to actually take a look.


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