Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s stinging defeat in parliamentary elections demonstrates that the Japanese people aren’t interested in abandoning their pacifist constitution and taking on the mantle of military might to help Washington manage some form of global hegemony. Japanese citizens don’t want to send troops to Iraq and are rejecting Abe’s stand on North Korea which is even tougher than Washington’s own now that direct talks are moving forward between officials from Pyongyang and the State Department.
Instead what voters affirmed on Sunday is that they want a government that will end years of eroding wages and prices, offer hope to millions of alienated young adults, and pledge to the nation’s growingly restive reserve of the elderly that their pensions and retirements will be protected and that the gap between rich and poor will somehow be narrowed.
DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro, having left his election-day sickbed, has confirmed Hatoyama’s proclamation, suggesting that it will be part of an aggressive strategy on the part of the DPJ to force an early election. If the DPJ plans to cooperate with the LDP to make good policy, it’s being awfully coy about it.
For Ozawa to hold the special measures law hostage to Diet tactics is shamefully opportunistic, and it will give Ozawa the dubious honor of having both authored Japan’s shift to bearing a greater burden in upholding global order and pushed for a new period of isolation. As LDP secretary-general during the Gulf War he pushed hard for Japanese boots on the ground, and when that failed, he authored the postwar international peace cooperation law that resulted in Japanese peacekeepers being sent to Cambodia, the beginning of the legal expansion of Japanese security policy that eventually produced the anti-terror and Iraq special measures laws as well as the formal adoption of “international peace cooperation activities” as a primary mission of the JSDF when the Defense Agency was elevated to ministry status. And yet now he has signaled his opposition to a bill that has enabled Japan to contribute materially to a multinational coalition assisting the reconstruction of Afghanistan, note multinational, not simply the US.
My concern is that backing away from contributing to global security even in minor ways like serving as a floating gas station for coalition ships will encourage passivity among the Japanese people. Passivity, not pacifism: I think the former is more of a problem than the latter, because free-riding is easy to do and does not particularly require the moral commitment of pacifism. The Japanese people did not vote against an activist foreign policy, they just didn’t vote in favor of one either, which means that if Japan is going to play some role as a security provider, it will take political leadership to hammer the point home to the people, the kind of leadership that Ozawa once promised but has apparently decided to abandon for the sake of partisan expedience. As US Ambassador Thomas Schieffer noted, “Japan is a responsible member of the international community and I would really hate for Japan to decide that the issue was not important any more or that they didn’t want to contribute.”
This isn’t about Iraq. (I happen to think there are plenty of good reasons for Japan to remove its transport aircraft.) This is about Japan’s not withdrawing into itself, focusing on its own problems to the exclusion of the rest of the world. What happens outside of Japan has tremendous importance for the Japanese people — considering their extreme dependence on imported energy and food, for example. The temptation to withdraw clearly still exists, among people and elites.
Japan obviously has a host of domestic problems to confront, and the lesson of this election is that they should be the government’s top priorities. But it is not an either/or proposition. The DPJ leadership should think carefully about whether it wants to lead Japan back down the road of free-riding, and it should also consider carefully what impact this strategy will have on party cohesiveness. How far can the DPJ go down this road before pushing its conservatives out of the party and potentially into the arms of the LDP?