The Upper House elections and Japanese security policy

Of all the factors that went into the LDP’s historic loss on Sunday, it is safe to assume that the security policy pursued under the Koizumi and Abe cabinets — an emphasis on the alliance with the US that has seen the JSDF deployed to the Indian Ocean and Iraq, albeit in non-combat roles — was not a significant factor in inducing voters to abandon the LDP.

As Michael Zielenziger argues, echoing a point I made here in advance of the election:

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.

That seems to be the lesson that the DPJ has drawn from its victory (or perhaps non-defeat is more accurate?) on Sunday. And so almost immediately after the results became clear DPJ Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio voiced the party’s opposition to the renewal of the anti-terror special measures law when it expires in November. The law, first passed in November 2001 as the keystone of the Japanese response to the 9/11 attacks, enabled the dispatch of MSDF vessels to support coalition efforts in Afghanistan, and there they have remained, refueling coalition warships in cooperation with the ongoing multinational campaign against the Taliban. Note that this law applies only to the campaign in Afghanistan; Japanese forces are in Iraq under a different piece of legislation, renewed earlier this year over opposition objections.

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?

One thought on “The Upper House elections and Japanese security policy

  1. Anonymous

    Ozawa Ichiro is certainly not the best candidate to head an emerging DPJ opposition but what choices do we have. Though Kan and Hatoyama are seasoned political veterans they lack the political savvy that Ozawa possesses. I personally wanted to see the JSP or even JCP, become part of a revitalized opposition to the LDP but their years out of power resulted in an ossified leadership that was not up to the challenges of the nineties. It will be many years I\’m afraid before Japan is able to develop a better political environment to cope with the challenges of its foreign policy environment not to mention meeting the challenges of its harsh domestic problems.


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