Japan looks homeward

Curzon at Coming Anarchy is fed up with the DPJ.

Considering the DPJ’s muddled position on the dispatch of JSDF ships to fight pirates alongside the naval forces of eighteen countries, he maintains that by waffling on the Somalia question, the DPJ has shown that it is incapable of governing.

I do not want to appear as a mere DPJ apologist, but I find Curzon’s argument a bit too simplistic. The DPJ has one goal — and one goal only — in mind: win the next election. Blocking the dispatch of JSDF ships, if it in anyway moves the DPJ closer to victory, is a small price to pay for political change. The DPJ is doing what an opposition party is supposed to do, keeping the government honest. Given the lack of oversight that has marked the Indian Ocean mission and the MSDF more generally (cf. the Atago Incident), the opposition is not wrong to block the government’s actions. (This is reportedly a major reason for DPJ skepticism about the dispatch.) Why should the DPJ be criticized for doing what an opposition party is supposed to do, especially since the LDP-Komeito government has such a poor record in command?

Of course it’s frustrating that Japan has been reluctant to commit its forces to a mission consistent with the three fundamental missions of the Self-Defense Forces, according to the revised SDF law. Article 3 of the law states that the JSDF’s primary missions are (1) the defense of Japan, defending its peace, independence, and security from invasions direct or indirect, (2) the maintenance of public order, and (3) cooperation with other nations under UN auspices to preserve international peace and prosperity (this last being a recent addition under Prime Minister Abe). Moreover, Article 82 authorizes the defense minister — with the approval of the prime minister — to dispatch MSDF forces to protect lives or property or preserve order at sea. I have a hard time seeing what is stopping the Aso government from going forward with full participation in coalition activities in the Gulf of Aden. The government controls two-thirds of the lower house of the Diet. If it believes that the dispatch is important, it should go ahead and do it, even if it means submitting a bill and waiting up to two months for the upper house to reject it. (That is, if a bill is required…)

The important question, therefore, is not why the DPJ is reluctant, but why the government, despite its supermajority, despite its principles, has dragged its feet. At least one reason for the delay is reluctance on the part of Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in government. The LDP has also made the mistake of connecting the dispatch with the question of Japan’s right of collective self-defense, the exercise of which is prohibited by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau’s prevailing interpretation. This mission should have nothing to do with collective self-defense and everything to do with Japan’s responsibilities to the international community. If Japan’s politicians are reluctant to fulfill those responsibilities, then the question is not to pin blame to one party or another but to pull back the curtain on Japanese foreign policy and ask why the Japanese people are so reluctant to approve any mission abroad by the JSDF.

In recent years, it appears that foreign policy has become a luxury for the Japanese people. Of course, given the difficulty of getting Japan to contribute more internationally in the best of times, is it fair to expect a substantial shift in Japan during the worst of times?

Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown that a tiny portion of the public thinks foreign policy is an important priority for the government. Polls show that a plurality favors some contribution to the multinational coalition in Somalia, but on the whole foreign policy achievements promise few gains and much risk for Japanese politicians. The Japanese people are, for the time being, interested in cultivating their own garden. Japan’s institutions are broken, the economy is tanking, and the Japanese people are rightly concerned with whether their futures are secure. Arguably ensuring access to energy is essential to the country’s economic future, but no leader has explained why events in the Horn of Africa (for example) are intimately connected with Japan’s prosperity. No Japanese leader has gone before the Japanese people and said that Japan has been free riding throughout the postwar period, and that it is time to change. The Japanese people, it seems, would rather be Switzerland, at least for the time being, while their elected representatives are torn between the demands of their tired constituents and the demands emanating from foreign capitals, in the case of some the demands from their friends abroad.

The Japanese people have little interest in being a normal nation, at least for now. They want their abductees accounted for, they want their pensions paid, and they want to know that they will have access to quality medical care as they age. This may not be what Washington wants to hear, but for the time being it is what Washington will get. For now Japan is not a global great power, nor was meant to be.

Sooner or later Japan will resolve its foreign policy identity crisis. The Japanese people may eventually decide that they’re ready to be a normal nation after all — or they may decide to undo the Meiji Restoration altogether and return to some twenty-first century iteration of sakoku. But ultimately it will be for the Japanese people and their leaders to decide.

5 thoughts on “Japan looks homeward

  1. Michael Penn

    Tobias,I agree with about 70% of what you\’ve written here, but I\’m not sure why you are being so emphatic in your recent posts about the righteousness of deploying the MSDF to East Africa to engage pirates. You surely must realize that what makes this proposed mission so much of a potential watershed is that we may see, for the very first time, the SDF going halfway across the world to shoot and kill other human beings. Is this really a line that the government should cross by simply reinterpreting an old law? Shouldn\’t such a major change in behavior be fully and explicitly endorsed by the Japanese public first? Is it acceptable for Japanese conservatives to continue their Constitutional \”revision by re-interpretation\”?It would be one thing if the Japanese public comes a new consensus which accepts the need for a change in security policy, and it is quite another for a minority of alliance conservatives to keep laying down fait accompli with little democratic legitimacy in the broader sense.


  2. Anonymous

    I agree with Michael.Especially if you think of what happened to the Indian Navy a while back : if I\’m not mistaken, they sunk a Thai fishing boat, mistaking it for pirates. Imagine the reaction in Japan, if the same sort of thing happened to the SDF…


  3. what makes this proposed mission so much of a potential watershed is that we may see, for the very first time, the SDF going halfway across the world to shoot and kill other human beings.I don\’t think this is the first time we may see such a thing, as the SDF has already been deployed overseas – though perhaps with less risk of live fire. I also don\’t think the mission will be to \”shoot and kill other human beings.\” The mission will be to protect the interests of Japan. It\’s up to those engaged in piracy to stand down if they want to avoid being shot at.


  4. Kaori

    Hi Tobias,I enjoy reading your posts every day. It\’s thought provoking. As a lay Japanese who\’s not so familiar with intricate nature of politics, your blog is easy to follow. Since I live abroad, it\’s a good source of information as well.I have a couple of questions on what you\’ve written here. First is about \’a normal nation\’. You used the phrase several times, but I would like to know what you really mean by that. How do you define \’a normal nation\’ or what does it mean for Japan to become \’normal\’? Do you imply Japan as it is right now is abnormal? Is becoming \’a normal nation\’ the best way for Japan to move forward? I wonder if there can be a way to become \’a unique nation\’ in terms of foreign policy, though I\’m not sure how it would look like.Second is about free-riding. Again, I hear this word often, but I\’m not entirely sure if I understand what it means. Is Japan free-riding in terms of money, personnel, policy or all? Do you mean there was no contribution whats so ever from Japan in the postwar?Lastly my opinion on Japanese people\’s hesitation in sending the SDF abroad. I don\’t represent Japanese population, but my personal feeling is that I\’m scared. I\’m scared that sending out one will trigger a snowball effect and soon we\’ll have collective-self defense, army bases and all that. I do believe Japan needs to be more proactive in contributing to the world peace and stability. But it seems like the more contribution equals to revision/re-interpretation of the Constitution as if that is the only answer and only thing needs to be discussed. Though I agree that discussion on the Constitution is inevitable and necessary, there could and should be discussion on many other ways Japan can contribute. We can be creative. Unfortunately, it doesn\’t look like that kind of quality of conversation can happen in Japanese political arena. I don\’t have trust in the capacity of Japanese politics and politicians. Therefore, I understand the need rationally, but I\’m dreadfully scared emotionally when it comes to the issue of deploying the SDF abroad.


  5. Anonymous

    Doesn\’t the constitution say that armed forces should not be maintained, ie one assumes for combat readiness?If so, why is there a \”modern well equiped\” army/navy anyway…surely that breaches the constitution already, so why all the fuss??


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