Right before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet approved the nation’s new long-term National Security Strategy in mid-December, the independent think tank Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, composed of prominent Japanese and American scholars, compiled its own approach.

Both the government and RJIF concur about many aspects in the two strategies, especially where they both see China’s re-emergence and growing maritime assertiveness as concerning. However, their approaches to countering China differ.

While the government plans to enhance the capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces, including creating an amphibious force akin to the U.S. Marine Corps, the foundation is focused on what it calls “quiet deterrence.”

Japan must be well-prepared for crises, but it is important not to provoke China by brandishing the country’s deterrence capability, said foundation head Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. “We have to do it quietly,” he added, without elaborating.

RJIF is one of the few emerging independent policy think tanks in Japan that can offer drastic recommendations put together by both Japanese and non-Japanese scholars free of outside influences, at a time when the country needs more innovative policies to challenge and compete with those of the government.

The lack of strong, independent think tanks that offer alternative policies to those of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and actually accomplish them also explains why the nation has not been able to achieve a stable two-party system, experts said.

When the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009, after ousting the long-ruling LDP, it touted in its platform, which it called its manifesto, politics and lawmaking inspired by politicians, instead of bureaucrats calling the shots as per LDP practice, but in reality the DPJ failed in its efforts, the experts said.

“American-style independent think tanks are key to changing the way the government operates,” said Funabashi, who was formerly affiliated with U.S. think tanks, including the Brookings Institute.

He noted that bureaucrats in Japan offer the opposition camp no help in compiling effective policies.

In September 2011, Funabashi’s organization launched an independent commission to investigate the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, offering different perspectives to those reported based on probes carried out by the government and by the Diet. The public bought more than 100,000 copies of the RJIF report, suggesting it struck a chord.

On the national security strategy, Funabashi emphasized that Japan needs to counter a declining population and curb its ballooning national debt in order to build a strong national foundation for diplomacy. The LDP-led government’s strategy is apparently premised on Japan remaining a strong economy and undertaking a proactive role as a global player.

“A country’s diplomatic skills will not exceed its national resources and strength. But the government lacks this view,” Funabashi said.

“Domestic policy, diplomacy and national security are closely intertwined.”

The government’s security strategy places little emphasis on nonmilitary efforts, including official developmental assistance, and trade and investment agreements. RJIF believes Japan must use “soft power” to get other countries to acknowledge its national interests, instead of just pushing cultural factors.

“Japan was able to enhance its hard power and soft power at the same time, but Japan’s current pursuit for hard power could negatively impact its soft power under Abe’s government,” said Ken Jimbo, associate professor at Keio University, who edited RJIF’s strategy. “Exercising collective self-defense is not a bad thing, but it is seen as a right-leaning policy due to Abe. That is a shame.”

There have been efforts to emulate American-style think tanks with the aim of connecting the intellectual community and the government in Japan. But critics said they have not been successful, partly because the government still wields strong power to limit private-sector bodies from taking part in policymaking.

The bureaucrat-led government system worked especially well after World War II, when the goal to rebuild was clear and Japan had a role model — namely America. As Japan ascended to become the world’s second-largest economy, numerous think tanks emerged to recommend policies starting in the mid-1960s. But the strong bureaucracy often prevented the fresh flow of ideas from the private sector from reaching the public realm.

In the case of individuals, analysts at American think-tanks often work as political appointees and later return to academia or think tanks to educate the next generation. Japan has few such appointees from the private sector, although they are increasing.

“Japan does not have a strong culture for allowing people other than those in the government to pitch diverse policy choices,” said Takahiro Suzuki, who founded the Tokyo Foundation, a nonprofit independent think tank, in 1997. “We do not have such a mechanism, ultimately because Japan is not a democracy.”

There are also problems with existing Japanese think tanks, as their main function has been to compliment government policies via consultations rather than offering ideas to change the system. They also lack the people capable of compiling and effecting policies, or a system to raise people’s level of expertise.

Suzuki noted that independent think tanks also struggle due to a lack of funds. While American think tanks are mostly independent and cash-rich, thanks to tax deductions for donations, Japan lacks such a system.

Suzuki, who helped set up a think tank within the LDP in 2006, also said lawmakers do not see any point in paying think tank workers to make policy recommendations when they can get what they need from bureaucrats for free.

There are some observers, however, who feel change may be possible due to the efforts made by the DPJ during its brief stint in power to revamp the system.

An example is Aoyama Shachu, a think tank headed by Ichiro Asahina, a former bureaucrat at the industry ministry who consults parties across the board to help compile platforms and speeches for Diet sessions.

“Parties either in the ruling or the opposition camps started to take policymaking more seriously after the DPJ replaced the LDP,” said Asahina. “As a former bureaucrat, I realize that some political realities are hard to overcome, but we need to push the limit, even by 20 percent, to make viable policies.”

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