When the Liberal Democratic Party’s Shinzo Abe became prime minister in December, some domestic and global media ran editorials labeling his appointment as the sign of Japan’s swing to the right.
Abe’s administration is considering enabling the Self-Defense Forces to engage in more defensive activities than they currently are allowed. Abe is also considering changing the name of the Self-Defense Forces to Kokubougun in Japanese, which literally means the “military” defending the country.
“There is no doubt Abe is moving Japan toward the right more than other past prime ministers,” said Narushige Michishita, an associate professor and the director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
Michishita opined, though, that it does not mean Abe is leaning to the right of the global standard. Rather, Abe is trying to improve the functionality of the SDF to the level that would merely be the necessary minimum in international standards, Michishita said.
For example, Abe wants Japan to be able to do the following four things: 1) to shoot down a missile aiming for the U.S. mainland; 2) to attack hostiles when a U.S. Navy ship sailing next to a Maritime SDF’s ship gets attacked; 3) to deploy SDF to places where the U.S. or other allies of Japan fight a war; and 4) to provide support such as giving food or weapons supplies to the U.S. or other allies of Japan allies in a time of war.
The Constitution’s Article 9 stipulates the renunciation of wars, but its interpretation varies by lawmaker, making the issue of the SDF’ roles complicated. Realizing these four points will require legislative changes and Abe’s administration will have to submit bills to the Diet, which is almost dominated by the coalition of Abe’s LDP and New Komeito.
Whether and when these four points are realized will depend on many factors, such as how cooperative New Komeito will be.
“If Abe made it happen, that would be a big step for Japan but considered a tiny step in bringing Japan closer to the global standard by those outside Japan,” Michishita said.
However, Abe being hawkish does not mean he wants to increase the defense budget. Rather, he wants to use his hawkish stance as a bargaining chip in diplomacy with neighboring countries such as China, Michishita said.
On territorial issues with China and South Korea, Abe’s stance may not be very different from former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
The Senkaku Islands, claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan and creating sharp diplomatic tension between Japan and China, is one area where Abe’s position is similar to Noda’s, Michishita said. Both think that a territorial dispute over the Senkakus does not exist.
But the difference is that Abe implied the possibility that Japan may place “government officials” on the uninhabited Senkaku Islands. Noda had hinted that he does not believe in the effect of placing government officials on the islands.
However, whether Abe actually will do so is not yet known, Michishita said.
On the issue of the Takeshima islets, claimed by Japan and South Korea, Abe said he plans for the government to host a Takeshima Day ceremony Feb. 22, while deciding not to do so “this year.” This means that Abe retains the possibility that the government may do so from next year on, Michishita said.
On diplomacy with North Korea, Abe will probably be hawkish to the country that organized the abduction of Japanese civilians in the 1970s and 1980s, he said.
“Abe is probably a good prime minister for families of the abductees because he will not be too soft on North Korea,” he said. North Korea returned some of the Japanese abductees to Japan in 2002, saying the others are dead. Families of such “presumably” dead abductees are unsure if they are really dead, and a solution to this problem is among the top priorities in diplomacy with North Korea. North Korea’s missile launches and nuclear programs also create diplomatic tension.
On the issue of U.S. forces in Japan, Abe will not do anything different from Noda, Michishita said. The Futenma base issue will not show any progress under Abe’s administration, he said.
The two countries agreed to move the base in Okinawa Prefecture to Henoko, another city in the prefecture. But the majority of Okinawa residents want the base out of the prefecture and the government has been trying to gain the understanding of the local residents.
On the other hand, Abe clarified he will improve the Japan-U.S. relationship and the U.S. knows it as well, Michishita said, adding that the U.S. was unsure whether prime ministers from the Democratic Party of Japan the past few years wanted to improve the bilateral relationship or not.
But the U.S. has a different type of concern over Abe.
“A nightmare scenario for the U.S. is that Abe becomes too aggressive on China and South Korea and involves the U.S. in conflicts,” he said.
For example, if the Japan-China relationship worsens over the Senkaku Islands, the U.S.-China relationship may worsen, too. That will affect the U.S. economy and bilateral exchange between the two power, he said.