The conservatives undaunted

Abe Shinzo, former prime minister and favorite of many alliance managers in Washington, was in Washington, D.C. this past week, meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and delivering addresses at the Brookings Institution and the Ocean Policy Research Foundation’s US-Japan Seapower Dialogue.

Chris Nelson, eponymous author of The Nelson Report, concluded from Abe’s visit that “he sure sounds like he intends to try and come back into power.” In other words, consistent with how he became prime minister in the first place, Abe is beginning his comeback tour in a place where he may still enjoy some support.

His Brookings speech may seem like a response to the global financial crisis and a vehicle to soften his image, but Abe said little different from what the Aso government is trying to do, using the economic crisis to promote investment in technological innovation. Abe is still more focused on the distant future than on the dismal present: “However, statesmen also have an obligation to tackle tomorrow’s problems. Statesmen have to build systems and projects that will allow their citizens to enjoy benefits over the long term and invest in those systems and projects.” He talks about his “Innovation 25” program, but it is unclear what the Japanese government has been able to do to make Japan more innovative and productive. When Abe and others talk about fostering innovation, it strikes me as bordering on technofetishism, a belief that Japan’s problems will vanish with technological innovation, which at the same time gives the impression of a certain degree of callousness to the Japanese people who are struggling in the present. Abe is still dreaming of his utsukushii Nihon to come, while the Japanese people continue to live in an increasingly kibishii Nihon.

Nelson noted that Abe came across as more internationalist in his Brookings address, which I guess is true, but for the most part I read it as the same old Abe. The same uneasy balance between a belief in the need for a “mutually-beneficial strategic relationship” with China while stressing the dangers of China’s military modernization program. The same blindspot for South Korea, Japan’s democratic neighbor. The same uncompromising position on North Korea and the emphasis on the abductees, although with the bizarre modification that the US can talk directly with North Korea as long as it continues to support Japan on the abductions issue. (This was, in a sense, precisely what the US was doing at the end of the Bush administration, pursuing a nuclear bargain in Beijing while the president and other officials assured Japan that it would not forget the abductees. And we saw how well that went over in certain circles in Japan.) He said nothing about constitution revision, although not for lack of belief in its importance.

He also did his part in the campaign to paint Ozawa Ichiro and the DPJ as dangerously irresponsible. Answering a question at Brookings, he said that only if Maehara Seiji becomes prime minister will a DPJ administration not undermine the alliance. As many of his fellow LDP members — and all too many people in Washington — have done, he singled out Ozawa Ichiro’s remarks about the US presence in Japan as indicative of some sort of fundamental incoherence on the part of the DPJ, a point which I’ve previously argued overstates the case. Meanwhile, I find it a bit rich for an LDP politician to bemoan the diversity of opinions within the DPJ, given how consensus has eluded the LDP on numerous policy questions. One day some LDP politician criticizes the DPJ for being Ozawa’s personal fiefdom; the next day another criticizes the DPJ for being too diverse in its opinions; the next day another criticizes the party as a reincarnation for the old Socialist Party. Which is it?

Earlier in his trip Abe met with Biden to talk about President Obama’s plans for nuclear arms reductions, delivering a message from Prime Minister Aso stating his desire to cooperate with the Obama administration on arms reduction and non-proliferation, although, as Ralph Cossa argued recently, Japan may be less enthusiastic about nuclear arms reductions than meets the eye. To put an exclamation point on Cossa’s argument, back in Japan Nakagawa Shoichi, another conservative exiled from power, was delivering a different message about nuclear weapons. Continuing the argument that he and other conservatives have made since North Korea’s rocket launch earlier this month, Nakagawa stressed that the only answer for North Korea’s nuclear weapons is for Japan to have its own nuclear weapons, an argument that Nakagawa says is “common sense” and not unconstitutional. The nuclear umbrella is apparently not porous, it’s non-existent. Why else would Japan need its own nuclear weapons? Can Nakagawa conceive of a situation in which North Korea would strike Japan with nuclear weapons without the US being drawn into the conflict?

Presumably Nakagawa realizes that Japan’s acquiring nuclear weapons would be a grave, if not mortal blow to the alliance, and yet he continues to make the argument — how is that somehow less detrimental to the alliance than anything Ozawa has said? There may be no quicker path to an independent Japanese security policy than the acquisition of nuclear weapons, as it is hard to see how the US could maintain the status quo arrangement were Japan wielding its own nukes. Nakagawa may be a disgraced former cabinet member, but he is not alone in making this argument, and the persistence with which conservatives make this argument make it more worrisome. They have a long-term project of making the case for a Japanese nuclear deterrent, and the more their argument goes unanswered, the more respectability it will acquire.

If Aso meant what he said to Obama, he ought to criticize Nakagawa and others publicly and unambiguously for their remarks. This isn’t a matter of taboos — they should be able to say whatever they want — but their arguments should not go unanswered. They should be met not with an irrational outcry, but with cool, rational arguments that illustrate the many dangers associated with the policy they are advocating.

Is there no one in the Japanese establishment willing or able to take up Nakagawa’s call for a debate on nuclear weapons and then proceed to destroy the idea?

As both Abe and Nakagawa illustrated last week, Japan’s conservatives are undaunted in their quest to remake Japan. They continue to wield considerable power, their ideas go largely unchallenged in the public sphere, and they have no shortage of the will to power despite setbacks.

6 thoughts on “The conservatives undaunted

  1. At least Nakagawa and his ilk are consistent in their radical nonsense while the kindly Japanese public lets them remain in power. Interestingly, the Communist Party is having a resurgence so that shows the great loss of faith in the current elite in much the same way the fake \’tea parties\’ in the US do. People hunger for change, not Abe, Nakagawa and Larry Summers reruns supporting the military-finance game plan. Evil empire anyone?


  2. Anonymous

    Japan Today reports that Chief Cabinet Secretary Kawamura said today (4/20/09) in response to a suggestion by former (disgraced) Finance Minister Nakagawa Shoichi yesterday that \”Japan will never possess nuclear weapons.\” On Sunday, in response to N Korea\’s threat to resume its nuclear weapons program, Nakagawa again reiterated his plea for politicians to open debate on the need for Japan to develop nuclear weapons.


  3. Long-Term Prediction Time:If Japan decides to possess nuclear weapons and openly subscribe towards nuclear deterrence, there will be many, many countries decrying this based on moral grounds. If these voices include a significant number from DC, then Japan\’s possession of nuclear weapons will preclude its resignation from the UN (esp if there is a Security Council resolution to this effect). This may be a doomsday scenario, but history can repeat itself, and a recent census shows that 3/4 of the population are post-war born.On another, possibly brighter subject, the voter turnout for regional elections (esp for small- to mid-sized city mayors) is increasing sometimes approaching 80% (!). Even if LDP candidates are winning some — showing they still enjoy support among a certain (I would say older) demographic — it does bode well for participatory democracy here. Also, last weekend\’s Asahi showed a higher voter turn-out for city council elections resulting in a net gain of seats for opposition parties.What this shows is that the problem with the DPJ, the reason they are losing the governorships, is poor coordination btw the center and regional machines. A TV news story (can\’t remember which, sorry!) spoke to this effect after the Chiba defeat. One local organizer said to the effect that they are lacking a real push in these elections from headquarters in Nagato-cho. Therefore, on the small-scale ones the local support networks seem to get the job done. However, in the regional biggies, Ozawa needs to really come off his high horse and hunker down in the provinces, or delegate someone to do so.Thus spaketh this house-husband.


  4. Anonymous

    The reality of Japanese politics strongly dampens any ethusiasm for the future of the country. This is the case especially with regard to the burning question of whether the country may choose to go nuclear in the future. The ascendancy of the ultra-conservative pro-nuclear faction who I refer to as the \”Abe-Aso-Nakagawa axis\” presents a particularly dangerous juncture in Japanese governance that goes contrary to the tide of public sentiment that has governed policy since WW II. The (test) explosion of a crude nuclear device by NK in the fall of 2006 has made this an ever more urgent consideration for Japan (and the world) to worry about whether Japan may or may not ultimately choose the nuclear route. Therefore the recent article in Asia Times by Tokyo correspondent Todd Crowell about the upcoming election of a new director of the IAEA, to replace Mohammed El Baradei, is of particular interest. El Baradei was in frequent hot water with the Bush administration over the question of WMD in Iraq and Iran. The formerly non-political post of director of the IAEA was shattered when El Baradei openly opposed the Bush administration claim that Saddam Hussein had secretly developed and stockpiled weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in violation of UNSC resolutions dating from the first Gulf War. El Baradei also got into trouble when he claimed that the Iranian nuclear establishment was pursuing peaceful nuclear development at its site in the desert. Bush tried several times to (unsuccessfully) oust El Baradei as head of the IAEA. El Baradei has said he will be retiring in November. Two candidates for his position have emerged, the Japanese ambassador and long time civil servant in the Foreign Ministry Amano Yukiya and the South African ambassador Abdul Minty. Amano has had a long involvement in nuclear non-proliferation diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry while Minty is known mostly for his activism in support of the anti-apartheid movement. The Obama administration is quietly supporting Amano. Because El Baradei effectively politicized the post of director of the IAEA during the controversial battle over Iraq, Obama would like to see a return to a quieter non-political agency, and Amano seems better suited to this role than Minty who is likely to be more like El Baradei in asserting the right of the agency to take controversial stands in nuclear matters. I would add that if Amano does win the race to replace El Baradei, the debate over whether Japan could go nuclear in the future, will be made harder for the positive side of the argument (ie the \”Abe-Aso-Nakagawa axis\”). If neither Amano nor Minty is able to get two-thirds of the vote of the IAEA board, then the doors would open for the nomination of other candidates.


  5. Anonymous

    BBC News has an article about NK on its website. The headlines says, \”North Korea urged back to talks\”, and it is dated April 25, 2009. The article says that \”Pyongyang pulled out of the six-party talks last week, in response to world condemnation of a recent missile test.\” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the N Koreans to return to the talks to discuss further denuclearization. But she approved of the sanctions voted in the UNSC against N Korea for its violation of UN resolution 1718. N Korea said it will ignore the sanctions and also announced that it will resume re-processing of fuel rods at its partly dismantled Yongbyon reactor. The reactor had previously been dismantled in 2007 after six-party talks resumed following the test explosion in 2006. The BBC correspondent added that this will not significantly alter the strategic balance in the region because the reactor has only been capable of producing enough material for six to eight bombs. My comment is that the overreaction to the missile test on the part of the US and Japan is an excellent example in international affairs of \”cutting off your nose to spite your face.\” Denuclearization is far more important as a measure to reduce the threat posed by N Korea than any missile capability they can develop. Although a credible delivery system is part of a complete weapons capability, the development of nuclear devices is much more difficult and important than the missile itself.


  6. Anonymous

    This is getting serious. Update from BBC News website. Headline says \”N Korea threatens nuclear tests\”. Dated April 29, 2009. N Korea threatened to carry out nuclear missile tests unless the UN Security Council apologizes for its condemnation of the recent NK rocket launch of April 5. The UNSC had denounced the missile test which it counter-claimed was a test of an ICBM and not an attempted launch of a satellite as claimed by N Korea. N Korea pulled out of the six-party talks, kicked the IAEA monitors out of its nuclear reactor installation at Yongbyon, and is threatening to resume re-processing of fuel rods and conduct more missile testing. The UNSC voted to place tough sanctions on N Korea which was rejected by the N Koreans. N Korea had partially dismantled its nuclear reactor under a deal agreed at the six-party talks early in 2007 which included a promise of fuel aid by the US and other parties to the talks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who approved of the sanctions by the UNSC has urged the N Koreans to return to the six-party talks. This will be her second tough assignment after the increasingly fragile and tense political conditions in Pakistan.


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