Aso deserves high praise

by Hisahiko Okazaki

Allow me to cite from a private conversation held with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi around the summer of 2004, following the the Upper House election in July and ahead of the Cabinet reshuffle in September. I had made two requests of Koizumi: Revise the government’s interpretation of the Constitution on the nation’s right of collective self-defense, and raise the consumption tax rate.

I was aware that the Koizumi Cabinet was unlikely to do anything about my requests. Still, I asked that the prime minister, at the very least, never say, “I will not do these things during the tenure of this Cabinet.” That’s because it was the habitual approach of the media and the opposition parties to seek the prime minister’s views on important issues at press conferences and question sessions in the Diet immediately following the formation of a new Cabinet, thus tying the hands of the Cabinet.

As prime minister, Koizumi rarely listened to the opinions of others. So I don’t know how much he embraced my views. But as far as I know, he never made statements dismissive of my proposals until his tenure ended.

My two requests involved matters that are unavoidably concerned with Japan’s future. Yet, from a common-sense standpoint, it is politically unwise to mention them. Politicians put them off by saying, “These things will not happen during the term of this Cabinet.”

Shortly before his administration was launched, Prime Minister Koizumi referred on television to the need for a revised interpretation of the constitutional right of collective self-defense. Then 9/11 occurred. As a result, priority was given to enacting a string of defense-related legislative measures, and the subject faded away. But at the launch of the reshuffled Cabinet, I made the aforementioned requests so that the Koizumi government would not blow its last chance.

Japan is odd compared with other industrialized countries, and lawmakers have invented ostensibly good excuses to avoid facing up to this fact.

Japan’s consumption tax, meanwhile, is very low for an industrialized country. According to Iwao Nakatani’s analysis, this is reflected in Japan’s economic disparity, which is the second-largest after that in the United States.

Although Japan’s poverty rate is not very different from that of other countries, the figure, after social security and other benefits have been distributed, is markedly high. Other industrialized countries have high consumption-tax rates and provide higher and better social security benefits and services. Japan’s Cabinets have dodged this matter, however, by advocating reform to reduce unnecessary expenses.

The excuse used to avoid the question of whether to exercise the right of collective self-defense is that Japan should amend the Constitution rather than take the stopgap measure of altering an interpretation.

If a Cabinet becomes aware that restrictions on the exercise of collective self-defense is harming Japan’s national interests, the means of correction should not amount to an “either-or” choice. Use whatever means is available at the time. Suggesting a constitutional amendment, which cannot be achieved easily, as a condition is an evasion of the issue.

Prime Minister Taro Aso has been criticized lately for trivial things, a public review of which would be rubbish. I have been impressed by two points. The first is that he remains uncompromising when it comes to his plan to raise the consumption tax rate in three years’ time. Such is not possible without a firm insight into Japan’s finances and economy.

As prime minister, Noboru Takeshita visited Thailand shortly before his resignation due to a sharp drop in his approval ratings following the introduction of the consumption tax and the suicide of his secretary. During his visit to the Japanese Embassy, Takeshita told me the consumption tax was the only achievement that he could proudly hand down to posterity. I was deeply impressed by his sense of duty to the nation.

The second thing that has impressed me about Aso is that he has nonchalantly stated: “I have said all along that the interpretation concerning the right of collective self-defense must be changed.” I hope he continues to voice this view.

Rumor has it, though, that the Cabinet Legislation Bureau has been lobbying to prevent the prime minister from repeating it. The bureau is tasked with offering advice in response to the government’s requests; it is not appropriate for the bureau to lobby in support of its own views. There is a need to find out whether this rumor is true. If it is, the bureau deserves condemnation.

In continuing to present his unyielding views on these two matters, Aso merits high praise as a prime minister who has stood by his beliefs without seeking an easy compromise. If the bottom line is to protect national interests, then the talk of the town about Aso must be regarded as garbage.

Hisahiko Okazaki is a former ambassador to Thailand. This article is an English translation of a Japanese article that originally appeared in the Jan. 22 Seiron column of Sankei Shimbun.