How "sympathetic" should Japan be?

As expected, the governing coalition passed a three-year extension of the sympathy budget in the House of Representatives Wednesday. The House of Councillors now has one month to deliberate on it before it comes into law automatically.

And deliberate it will. In the lower house, the DPJ already questioned the use of the sympathy budget to employ “entertainment” employees — golf course workers for example — and will undoubtedly continue to hammer on this point in the HC. But who knows what other egregious misuses of taxpayer money are lurking in the sympathy budget.

The government is emphasizing the importance of the sympathy budget to the alliance and therefore the region. In questioning in the HR Foreign Affairs committee, Prime Minister Fukuda said, “Since America’s presence is linked to the security of our country and of the whole Asian region, it [the special agreement on the sympathy budget] must continue.”

In other words, if Japan doesn’t keep providing golf course attendants, the Chinese will win.

Both Yomiuri and Sankei have echoed the government’s line, emphasizing the importance of unquestioning financial support for the US presence in Japan as necessary for Japan’s security. In fact, the arguments used in both newspapers’ editorials are nearly identical, and they conclude on the exact same note: Yomiuri asks whether the DPJ is serious about its call for a “US-Japan alliance grounded in mutual trust,” Sankei asks whether the DPJ is serious about its call for a “true US-Japan alliance.”

Both also call attention to the contrast between Japan’s payments to the US and Japan’s restricted defense budget. As Yomiuri wrote, “In US Defense Department statistics, Japan is responsible for 75% of the costs of US forces in Japan, the most among 26 major countries. On the other hand, with Japan’s defense expenditures less than one percent as a ratio of GDP, it is the lowest rank — 26th — and 20th in personnel dispatches to international peacekeeping operations.” In other words, Japan is not in a position to complain about paying for US forces until it spends more on defense and plays a greater global role.

With that attitude, the relationship will remain unchanged for years to come.

It’s healthy that the DPJ is asking questions that LDP-led governments haven’t asked, at least publicly. Doing so brings much needed oversight to Japanese policy making, and with luck it will spark a broader discussion about the alliance, Japan’s security policy, and the distributions of burdens and risks.

Pace Yomiuri, Sankei, and Mr. Fukuda, the alliance — and regional security — will be enhanced by greater transparency, which will clarify the terms of the relationship and air festering grievances that have been muffled by both governments.

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