Since becoming Defense Agency chief, Shigeru Ishiba has not been shy about rocking the boat.
Although often called hawkish and neoconservative, a term likened to American hardliners, people who feel Japan’s defense policy is not realistic hail him as one of the new-generation lawmakers looking seriously at national security issues.
Many top Defense Agency officials say he is the best politician they have ever had at the helm because of his extensive military knowledge, which has earned him the title “gunji otaku” (military buff) in some circles.
Cognizant of such perceptions and, according to Mao Yoshimura, his secretary of nearly 10 years, feeling the weight of his Cabinet post, however, the 46 year-old Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker apparently tried to soften his image in an interview at his Defense Agency office with The Japan Times.
In the nine months since he assumed the top defense post, Ishiba has made some waves. One such example is when he told the Diet that “it is worth considering” whether the nation should have an offensive capability.
He also trotted out an official government view from 1956 that Japan has the right to attack an “enemy base” as an act of self-defense. He argued that Japan currently has no means of defending itself from a North Korean missile attack.
During the interview, he stressed several times that his use of the term “consider” means just that.
“Please don’t take me wrong,” Ishiba stressed. “I am not arguing that the Constitution should be revised or reinterpreted. I don’t mean we should attack an enemy base, either.
“What I mean is we should never fall into a state where we stop thinking. We must continue examining each security issue, and at every stage.
“What if an enemy starts preparing a missile attack clearly targeting Tokyo and we have no missile defense system?” Ishiba asked. “It would be impossible for people to evacuate in just one or two minutes. Hundreds of thousands would die.
“(A missile defense system) is not something that can be deployed soon after we place an order,” he said. “It requires a lot of time and money. We must first discuss whether to even choose this course.”
A decade ago, Ishiba’s views on missile defense and pre-emptive strikes would have been deemed too radical, even though pressure was mounting on Japan to ease its interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution to allow Self-Defense Forces units to join in overseas peacekeeping activities.
“He has always been ahead of his time,” said LDP lawmaker Yasukazu Hamada, who has known Ishiba for 10 years. “He has been defying taboos.”
Times have changed. Ishiba now finds comrades even in the opposition camp. On June 23, a bipartisan study group on defense consisting of 103 junior politicians, of which Ishiba serves as a key member, issued a statement calling for the government to change the defense-only policy of the post-World War II period to allow for a “minimum” level of offensive capability to attack an enemy. This would imply a pre-emptive capability against North Korea’s missile threat.
Views are divided, however, about these new-generation politicians.
“They are free from past restraints and able to debate defense from a wider point of view compared with past politicians, who felt weighted down by the interests of the Defense Agency,” said Atsushi Kusano, a professor at Keio University.
Hiromichi Umebayashi, president of Peace Depot, a Yokohama-based disarmament think tank, on the other hand said some junior lawmakers are bent on introducing foreign military concepts without having a full understanding of Japan’s history.
Ishiba was born in 1957 in Tottori, the least populated prefecture. His father was a bureaucrat in the former Construction Ministry before winning an Upper House seat. He later served as home affairs minister as well as governor of Tottori.
The junior Ishiba studied law at Keio University. Upon graduation, he went to work for the then Mitsui Bank, which later merged with Sumitomo Bank to form Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. He said he had no intention of becoming a politician.
But when his father died of cancer when Ishiba was 24, he had a change of heart.
Persuaded by former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who was close to his father, Ishiba ran for a Lower House seat and was elected in 1986 at age 29.
“I’d thought many times how easy it would be to go to City Hall and declare I am no longer in the race,” Ishiba recalled.
Because his father had been in the Upper House, Ishiba could not tap into his legacy and had to cultivate a constituency from scratch. He was too young to run for the Upper House, which requires that candidates be at least 30 years old.
Ishiba has been an aficionado of the Maritime Self-Defense Force since he went aboard a MSDF ship at age 11, but it wasn’t until 1991, while serving his second term, that he was awakened to security issues.
Ishiba recalled witnessing the government’s confusion about how to respond to the Gulf War. Also that year he visited North Korea on a legislative mission and was shocked to find “such a nation existing so close to us.”
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that he assumed his first defense post.
Before he was appointed in December 2000 as senior secretary for defense, Ishiba had been more involved as a politician in agricultural, environmental and transportation issues. He served as senior secretary for agriculture, forestry and fisheries between June and December 2000.
Having now poured himself into his defense portfolio, one senior Foreign Ministry official questioned “his sense of balance as a politician.”
Having a wife and two daughters, Ishiba said he does not wish to become prime minister because “I love my family.”
“To become prime minister requires the strength to be able to sacrifice one’s family in the case of emergency,” he said. “I can’t do that.”
But having said that, Ishiba wrote in a book titled “Watashi ga Sori ni Nattanara” (“If I Became Prime Minister”), a collection of short essays by politicians published in 2002, that the first thing he would do should there ever be an Ishiba Cabinet would be to re-evaluate the Constitution.
Ishiba left the LDP in 1993 after growing disappointed by certain policies at that time, including a proposal by then LDP President Yohei Kono to drop the party’s longtime quest to revise the Constitution.
He returned to the fold four years later.
“The Constitution exists to serve Japan and not vice-versa,” Ishiba said. “If, from discussions, it is determined that aspects of the Constitution are truly detrimental, they should be corrected. But even the discussion process has not been carried out, has it?”
He refused to specify which parts of the Constitution need re-evaluation, but said there are many.
The winner of a national student legal debate contest while at Keio, Ishiba said he finds “ambiguities” in the nation’s supreme law.
He said he believes the spirit of Article 9, which renounces war as a means of settling international disputes, should be respected. But he said the second part of the article, which stipulates that, to accomplish this spirit, Japan will never maintain land, sea or air forces and will not recognize the right of belligerency, is difficult to grasp.
He finds the domestic argument that the SDF is not a military absurd.
Asked how he would rephrase the article, he said, for example, that “Japan will maintain ground, sea and air forces to defend itself . . . and will respect its rights and duties under international law.”
At the end of the interview, Ishiba refused to hold one of the model warships or fighters in his office when asked to pose for photographs.
“No, no, please,” he said shyly. “That could again get me called a military buff.”