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Japan’s step toward normalcy

by Hisahiko Okazaki

Following the launch of a new Cabinet under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, certain elements in Japan and overseas are warning of a dangerous swing to the right in Japan politics. I find their concerns hard to understand.

Objectively speaking, the country is still solidly left of center on issues of foreign and security policy. Indeed, by international standards, Japan remains a pacifist nation — here meaning not simply a nation that loves peace but also something less admirable — oddly out of touch with current realities.

This is clear enough if we compare Japanese attitudes with those prevalent in other countries. Back during the Cold War, when the Soviet threat was at its height, an international survey asked people around the world whether they would be willing to fight to defend their country.

As I recall, some 80 percent of respondents worldwide indicated that they would be willing to do so while far fewer than 50 percent of the Japanese surveyed answered in the affirmative.

Now if we ask the same question in Japan today, we may come up with a higher rate of more than 50 percent. Yet the percentage of Japanese willing to fight for their country would still be substantially lower than elsewhere. The Japanese are not swinging to the right; at the most, they are modifying their starry-eyed pacifism and gradually becoming more normal.

I am still waiting for Japan’s political scientists to focus some of their attention on a much more clear-cut trend: the virtual collapse of this country’s rightwing extremist groups in recent years.

Rightwing nationalism has a long history in Japan, beginning in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Before World War II, agitators and terrorists acting under the leadership and influence of people like Mitsuru Toyama (1855-1944), Shumei Okawa (1886-1957) and Ikki Kita (1883-1937) had a major impact on Japanese society and politics.

The postwar period continued to see high-profile rightwing groups like Daitojuku and Bin Akao’s Great Japan Patriotic Party (Dai Nippon Aikoku To), which were particularly active during the controversies over renewal of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in 1960 and the continuation of the treaty in 1970.

Through much of my intelligence-related career I came into frequent contact with information regarding these groups and their activities. But the stream of such information tapered off quite a few years ago, and these days one hears virtually nothing about those groups. Rightwing groups still exist but clearly they are neither influential nor dangerous enough to merit the attention of government officials and policy makers.

In 2006, after a rightwing extremist set fire to the home of veteran politician Koichi Kato, I appeared on a television talk show premised on the notion that Japan was on the cusp of a surge in rightwing terrorism comparable to that of the 1930s. I shut down the other panelists’ arguments by saying that the crime was an isolated act of a frustrated old rightwinger.

I knew from my information sources that, organizationally speaking, the extremist right was essentially moribund.

Compare this situation with that of Europe, where rightwing nationalist parties with an anti-immigrant agenda continue to attract considerable support. One finds no trace of such xenophobia in the Abe Cabinet or, indeed, in the Liberal Democratic Party as a whole.

In fact, it is telling that none of the plethora of small parties that sprang up in the recent general election ran on platforms comparable to those of Europe’s rightwing nationalist parties. This tells us that Japanese society today is simply inhospitable to the extreme right.

The change we are witnessing is not a swing to the right but a gradual shift toward normalcy. That said, in the context of today’s international political environment, Japan is still far from normal. As a partner in the task of maintaining a regional balance of power, it has fallen woefully short of expectations.

Back in 1978, when Japan and China were concluding the peace and friendship treaty that normalized bilateral relations, China’s big security concern was the Soviet Union. At that time, Beijing actually wanted Tokyo to boost defense spending from below 1 percent of gross domestic product to around 3 percent to help contain the Soviets. Under those circumstances, Japan could have settled the dispute over the Senkaku Islands once and for all had it been so inclined.

Back then, when Washington still recognized both the Republic of China in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, the incentive of defense cooperation vis-a-vis the Soviet threat might have given Japan sufficient leverage to maintain closer official ties with Taipei, helping to put Taiwan on a more secure footing.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Washington pressured its allies to build up their military capabilities and Japan responded positively, opening the way to a new era of cooperation under President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. But even then defense spending barely rose above 1 percent of GDP since Japan was enjoying high economic growth.

After the end of the Cold War this became a major bone of contention with the United States, which spent 6 percent of GDP at the height of the Cold War. Americans began to view the Japanese as freeloaders reaping the benefits of a victory to which they had contributed all too little. The Japan bashing of those years is not something that Japanese people, who were the driving force of Japan’s economic growth, can easily forget.

Today the U.S. faces a major security dilemma. Even as it shifts its strategic focus to China under the current administration’s “pivot to Asia,” its ability to maneuver is severely limited by the need to cut spending to put federal deficit under control.

Washington is counting more than ever on the cooperation of its friends and allies in the region.

In the U.S. media, concerns about a rightward shift in Japan were fairly muted in the days following the LDP’s Dec. 16 landslide. In a Dec. 17 article in The Wall Street Journal, U.S. Japanologist Michael Auslin dismissed fears of Japan’s lurch to the right. An analysis by Australian academic John Lee published in The New York Times the same day made no mention of such a swing, merely welcoming the advent of a government that was likely to take a tougher line with Beijing. Among news items and analyses of this sort, I saw perhaps a paragraph or two raising the possibility of a shift to the right but very few American news outlets ran editorials or commentaries focused on this theme.

Both Nakasone and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who headed the two longest-lived Japanese administrations of the past three decades, built their policies on a firm foundation of trust between Japan and the U.S.

The longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, Eisaku Sato, fell from power after parting ways with the United States over textile trade issues. Having forfeited Washington’s trust, he was blind-sided by the so-called Nixon shocks, a series of abrupt changes in U.S. monetary and trade policy that had profound consequences for Japan.

Today, Washington is relying on Japan’s cooperation to facilitate its pivot to Asia, which is at the heart of its new foreign policy and strategic plan.

For Japan, this presents a unique opportunity. By building up our defense capabilities, removing the legal obstacles preventing us from exercising our right to collective self-defense, and beefing up security cooperation with the U.S., we can place this crucial bilateral relationship on a firm footing once again.

Hisahiko Okazaki served as Japan’s ambassador to Thailand from 1988-1992. This is a translation of Sankei Shimbun’s Dec. 26 Seiron column.

  • Tyler Durden Volland

    Well, for Mr Okazaki it may be hard to understand, for us “normal” people it is obvious.

    But, thank you for warning the rest of the world, that japanese have a huge problem understanding, what everyone else can see, given a look at japanese history it may be a good idea to keep Mr Okazaki’s statement in tjhe abck of one’s mind….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=866515486 西野賢治

    I do not think that Japan has experienced a shift towards the right wing, because it has always been there. As soon as the possibility of receiving Japanese citizenship for immigrants becomes normality, gay marriage is enabled, and a public and informed discussion about micro-racism and sexism in Japan’s society has started, THEN Japan will become a country where I will feel fully at home.

    This article, which tries to equate right-wing policy with nationalism, turns a blind eye towards the conservative nature of the LDP and becomes itself a tool to argue FOR right-wing policies. Does this dude really say that Japan is not right-wing (or nationalistic) enough?! What a whole lot of crap and cheap propaganda!

  • Guest

    I find it unfortunate that Japanese writers espousing a tougher military use the U.S. as an example of “normal.” Is it normal to engage in an Iraq wars, against a country that was no threat to the U.S., in the face of international opposition from allies like Canada, France and Germany? The most recent Gulf War lasted 10 years and resulted in suffering for soldiers (and their families) who were deployed multiple times to Iraq while the rest of the U.S. population did not serve and indeed wanted tax cuts. And this war did not achieve its stated goals of bringing democracy or stability to Iraq. Its very easy to wave a flag and move people to excessive patriotism (called “nationalism”) but this can often be misguided.

    The world is more and more a multilateral place or more equal powers, where we must use diplomacy and create institutions capable of international decision-making without recourse to war. On the other hand, “balance of power” politics that dominated the world until 1945 has been proven to only lead to larger, more disastrous (if less frequent) wars and should be avoided.

    No, Japan should seek its “normal” based on a post-war consensus that war is a last resort. Preparedness is one thing, but to jump wholeheartedly into participation in military solutions around the world will be bad for Japan. Look for “normal” in places like Canada or the European Union, but not in the U.S. policies of the last decades.

    I sincerely hope that with the re-election of Obama and the appointment of John Kerry (an ardent opponent of the Vietnam war) to Secretary of State, the U.S. is looking to create a “normal” that will be based on multi-lateral thinking.

  • 151E

    Four thoughts:

    First, while Japan spends ‘only’ 1% of GDP on military spending, it ranks sixth internationally in terms of overall military expenditures, ahead of such ‘normal’ nations as Germany (1.3%) and Canada (1.4%). Greater military spending does not linearly equate with greater security, and it is not clear that Japan needs to further bolster its defence capabilities, especially considering that the most serious threats to Japan are global warming (principally with regards to food security) and disease (from increasing antibiotic resistance and emerging pandemic threats).

    Second, as for Japan’s drift to the right, it may be hard to perceive if one’s perspective is already somewhat right of center. And while not as cartoonishly crude as the shrill wailings of the black rightwing sound trucks, the noise emanating from the ranks of Japan’s history-denying, military-fetishizing, preemptive war endorsing politicians is enough to raise doubts. Are these the right people to entrust with expanded ‘normal’ military powers?

    Third, no surprise that rightwing political think tank analysts like Auslin and Lee expressed no concern over Japan’s shift to the right. For them, Japan is seen as a regional buffer against China, and ironically, most of Japan’s ‘patriotic’ nationalists are strangely sycophantic towards the Americans, so of course they endorse this new government simpatico with their own agenda.

    Finally, one might well ask should Japan even strive to be a ‘normal’ nation, when ‘normalcy’ seems to entail wasteful military spending and much aggressive posturing. Perhaps other countries should strive to be ‘abnormal’ like Japan, and renounce the right of belligerency of the state and the use of force as a means of settling international disputes, except in the case of self-defence.

  • Roy Warner

    It is easy for Mr. Okazaki to condemn pacifism. He has never himself serviced in the military and if war arises, he knows that nobody in his family or neighbourhood will be going to the frontlines.

  • WithMalice

    Quite a politically-charged and very opinionated piece. And as a foreigner living in Japan, I’d like to reassure Mr Okazaki that his precious right is still in existence. At least in pockets around Japanese society.

  • 151E

    Four thoughts:

    First, while Japan spends ‘only’ 1% of GDP on military spending, it ranks sixth internationally in terms of overall military expenditures, ahead of such ‘normal’ nations as Germany (1.3%) and Canada (1.4%). Greater military spending does not linearly equate with greater security, and it is not clear that Japan needs to further bolster its military defence capabilities, especially considering that the most serious threats to Japan are global warming (principally with regards to food security) and disease (from increasing antibiotic resistance and emerging pandemic threats).

    Second, as for Japan’s drift to the right, it may be hard to perceive if one’s perspective is already somewhat right of center. And while not as garishly crude as the shrill wailings of the black rightwing sound trucks, the noise emanating from the ranks of Japan’s history-denying, military-fetishizing, preemptive war endorsing politicians is enough to raise doubts. Are these the right people to entrust with expanded ‘normal’ military powers?

    Third, it is no surprise that rightwing political think tank analysts like Auslin and Lee expressed no concern over Japan’s shift to the right! For them, Japan is seen as a regional buffer against China, and ironically, most of Japan’s ‘patriotic’ nationalists are sycophantic towards the Americans, so of course they endorse this new government.

    Finally, one might well ask should Japan even strive to be a ‘normal’ nation, when ‘normalcy’ seems to entail wasteful military spending and much aggressive posturing. Perhaps other countries should strive to be ‘abnormal’ like Japan, and renounce the right of belligerency of the state and the use of force as a means of settling international disputes, except in the case of self-defence.

  • Roan23

    I hope that this well-reasoned article by an eminent and seasoned observer is widely read, as it will go far to dispel the hysteria being mischievously stirred up by the usual suspects, both here and abroad.

  • 151E

    Three points:

    First, as for Japan’s drift to the right, it may be hard to perceive if one’s perspective is already somewhat right of center. So no surprise that rightwing political think tank analysts like Auslin and Lee expressed no concern over Japan’s shift to the right! For them, Japan is seen as a regional buffer against China, and ironically, most of Japan’s rightwing politicians like Abe are sycophantic towards the Americans, so of course the US media largely endorses this new government.

    Second, while Japan spends ‘only’ 1% of GDP on military spending, it ranks sixth internationally in terms of overall military expenditures, ahead of such ‘normal’ nations as Germany (1.3%) and Canada (1.4%). Greater military spending does not linearly equate with greater security, and it is not clear that Japan needs to further bolster its defence capabilities, especially considering that the most serious threats to Japan are global warming (principally with regards to food security) and disease (from increasing antibiotic resistance and emerging pandemic threats).

    Third, one might well ask should Japan even strive to be a ‘normal’ nation, when ‘normalcy’ seems to entail wasteful military spending and much aggressive posturing. Perhaps other countries should strive to be ‘abnormal’ like Japan, and renounce the right of belligerency of the state and the use of force as a means of settling international disputes, except in the case of self-defence.

  • Armchair Asia

    Curious thinking that militarism without morals will now be effective with the United States.

    Amb Okazaki was a signatory of both the June 2007 (Washington Post) and the November 2012 (New Jersey Star Ledger) advertorial condemning the Comfort Women as lying prostitutes. Neither was diplomatic nor showed any intelligence of the American political system. Indeed, the ad in the New Jersey newspaper was days after Hurricane Sandy devastated the shores of New Jersey. This ad, also signed by Shinzo Abe who would become prime minister, sent no message of empathy with the people of New Jersey as might be expected of statesmen. Instead, it spread denier history and insensitivity.

    Okazaki is frankly part of Japan’s shift toward conservative nationalism. And his article is one of many spreading disinformation.