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Self-defense less collective at local level

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

After the Shiga gubernatorial election earlier this month, in which Taizo Mikazuki, the hand-picked successor to former Gov. Yukiko Kada, defeated the ruling coalition’s candidate, certain media agencies and pundits suggested that collective self-defense had no impact on the race.

Such arguments were factually correct. Exit polls showed that pocketbook issues, name recognition and even questions about nuclear power weighed more heavily on voters’ minds than collective self-defense, per se. But what the analysts overlooked was how Abe’s handling of the sensitive debate and his push for a Cabinet decision impacted the election.

Voters objected to Abe’s strong-arm tactics, as did his Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition partner, pacifist New Komeito.

Shiga’s LDP officials admitted that New Komeito was not as helpful as it could have been in stumping for their preferred candidate. Even Abe told reporters after the election that he did not intend to deny the influence that collective defense had on the final result.

Yet the Shiga election is also important because it may foreshadow the kinds of practical issues and local attitudes central government officials and local leaders in Kansai and elsewhere will face as a result of the Cabinet’s decision to reinterpret the war-renouncing Constitution.

In Kansai, official discussion of what the repercussions will be at the local level hasn’t really begun. Partially, this is because nobody is quite sure what will happen. But it’s also the case that, compared with Kanto, Okinawa and even parts of Hokkaido, the presence of the military in Kansai is not as visible. Thus, dealing with base-related issues that may arise from the Cabinet decision is not really on the region’s political radar.

The Self-Defense Forces’ main Kansai-area bases are in and around Itami and Yao airports in Osaka Prefecture, at the ports of Kobe and Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, and in smaller administrative support facilities and supply depots in Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Wakayama and Nara prefectures.

But at least two Kansai communities are thinking about what the Cabinet’s reinterpretation might mean. Last October, the Aibano Training Area in Takashima, Shiga Prefecture, became the first place in Honshu to host MV-22 Ospreys when the Ground Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Marines held a joint exercise. Under the new collective self-defense guidelines, those living beside the base want to know if such training missions at Aibano will grow, especially given past and present concerns and questions about the Osprey’s safety.

In addition, the Air Self-Defense Force’s auxiliary base at Kyogamisaki, in Kyotango, Kyoto Prefecture, will host a U.S. X-band radar facility. The prefectural government says up to 160 U.S. service members and technicians will be assigned to the facility, which will serve as a front-line defense against North Korean missiles.

In the corporate community, there is general support for Abe’s decision. Kansai business groups, whose top members include representatives from defense contractors, extended support but urged Abe to convince the world that Japan was not going to invade or go to war with another country.

“We agree with the thinking behind the Cabinet decision to reinterpret collective self-defense. But under what conditions it will be carried out, including the geographical limitations, needs to be clarified,” said Kazutoshi Murao, an executive director of the Kansai Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai).

What the local impact might be from increased deployments of either SDF or U.S. military units to larger facilities such as Maizuru, which might serve as a critical naval base if a crisis erupts on the Korean Peninsula, has long been on the minds of politicians in northern Kyoto, though they always insist it’s an issue they have little control over.

On the other hand, Toru Hashimoto, while Osaka governor, suggested that Kansai airport might host the U.S. Marines currently deployed at the Futenma air station in Okinawa, an idea he pitched and then quickly dropped.

But if Kansai officials are only making vague noises about what they can do for collective self-defense, a few are more clear about bolstering cooperation with the U.S. military in another area: local disaster response drills.

On Aug. 31, the U.S. military will join a disaster response drill conducted by seven cities and one town in Hyogo. The details remain sketchy, with Hyogo officials saying last week they were waiting to find out who, exactly, from the U.S. side will be coming and what they’ll be doing.

“This training exercise will involve the U.S. military, the Self-Defense Forces, the coast guard, local police and fire departments, and local bureaucrats. It aims to have the U.S. military and the SDF work together, and the U.S. role will be to participate in drills involving the use of helicopters,” Hyogo Gov. Tetsuzo Ido told reporters last month. “However, what the exact role of the U.S. will be is still under discussion.”

He added that Ospreys would not take part, but that the aircraft might be used in a separate drill involving the seven-prefecture, four-city Union of Kansai Governments.

Over the coming months, as the Diet discusses further legislation related to the collective defense reinterpretation, questions about what the local impact might be are likely to arise.

With nationwide local elections scheduled for next spring, there will be pressure on Abe by local LDP chapters to be more attuned to local voter attitudes not only toward self-defense, but also toward a range of issues on which the prime minister and his Cabinet are increasingly perceived as being too Tokyo-centric.

At the same time, more Kansai leaders are starting to view recent events as a chance to push for, or at least discuss, greater SDF and U.S. military involvement in local disaster preparation drills and response planning. From their point of view, such moves constitute a local version of “reinterpreting collective self-defense,” one that is much more immediately visible than the one approved by Abe’s Cabinet.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.