When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe loosened the limits of the pacifist Constitution to drop a ban on the Self-Defense Forces fighting overseas, many experts said it was a step toward becoming a “normal country” able to do more in its own defense.
But Ichiro Ozawa, a one-time kingmaker who coined the phrase two decades ago, says Abe’s policy is fundamentally different and risks leading Japan down a path with dangerous echoes of prewar militarism.
Abe’s Cabinet took a step away from Japan’s postwar pacifism this month by dropping a ban on exercising the right of “collective self-defense,” or aiding a country under attack. That prohibition has kept troops from fighting abroad since 1945.
Ozawa used the phrase “normal country” in his 1994 book, “Blueprint for a New Japan,” written after the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The Constitution’s constraints then limited Japan’s contribution to the U.N.-backed military mission to providing cash.
Many policymakers were embarrassed when the failure to put boots on the ground was derided abroad as “checkbook diplomacy.”
“His ideas are different from the ‘normal country’ of which I spoke,” Ozawa, 72, said in an interview.
“Mr. Abe’s concept is for Japan to have a sort of prewar-style, great power military and economy — a kind of prewar revival,” he said.
“He is a good person, but I feel there is something rather dangerous about his political views and ideals as a top leader.”
A heavyweight in the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, now headed by Abe, Ozawa bolted in 1993 and led a succession of opposition parties.
These included the Democratic Party of Japan, which took over from the LDP in a 2009 landslide poll, but was ousted when Abe surged back to power in 2012. Ozawa is now leader of the small opposition Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party).
Abe’s government has rejected suggestions by China and some domestic critics that it aims to revive prewar style militarism.
Proponents say the policy shift, which revises a long-standing interpretation of the Constitution’s pacifist Article 9, is vital for Japan to cope with a tough security environment.
Ozawa, however, has long argued that the Constitution limits Japan’s military participation in conflicts not directly related to Japan to missions sanctioned by the United Nations.
Allowing participation in operations with allies in other conflicts not directly tied to Japan’s defense would require amending the Constitution, he says.
“The Cabinet can adopt whatever resolution it likes, but there is no scope for reinterpretation,” Ozawa said.
As DPJ leader in 2007, Ozawa opposed a law allowing Japan to refuel foreign ships taking part in U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, one of the factors that forced Abe to resign abruptly in his first yearlong term as prime minister.
He said the political tide that once made Ozawa seem right-wing has shifted so much that he now comes across as leftist.
“In the past, I was called right-wing, now they call me left-wing,” he said. “I have not changed at all.”