When Shintaro Ishihara retired from politics after failing to get re-elected last December, it seemed we wouldn’t have the right-wing firebrand to kick around any more, but last week there he was in Shukan Asahi talking to former Liberal Democratic Party comrade Shizuka Kamei about various topics, including the security bills the Lower House just passed.

Ishihara is glad the bills were approved because, as he points out, “I love the Self-Defense Forces,” and, naturally, he wants to see those he loves doing the work they were put on this Earth to do. The problem with the bills is that they aren’t clear about what that work entails. While Ishihara and Kamei have a mentor-acolyte relationship — the latter refers to the 82-year-old former Tokyo governor as sensei (teacher) — since leaving the LDP Kamei has increasingly cultivated a progressive stance, coming out strongly against capital punishment and restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants. These positions clash with Ishihara’s.

The two men’s conversation about the bills was more useful than the related Diet deliberations, despite Ishihara’s tendency to contradict himself after almost every pronouncement. The ruling party has been deliberately vague about what the bills mean. Opposition lawmakers continually asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to explain in concrete, specific terms what the SDF could expect when they join in the collective defense activities the bills allow. Does it mean Japanese SDF members will fight alongside allies in overseas battles? Loath to mention anything that may suggest they’d be put in harm’s way, Abe provided answers, like the wording in the bills themselves, that were so general as to imply there would be no change in the SDF’s status.

Taking the LDP’s side, Ishihara told Kamei that the opposition did nothing more than “pick up certain words and make them sound scandalous.” He was impressed by the way Abe conducted himself during the debates, and complimented the prime minister on his speech before the U.S. Congress.

Kamei came away with a different opinion. “He wants to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and make it an equal relationship, but he’s going about it wrong,” he says. If Abe thinks he’s honoring his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi’s memory by agreeing to “support” American troops overseas, he doesn’t understand what Kishi was trying to accomplish as prime minister in 1960 when he extended the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to fight the Cold War.

“I don’t think America wants to work with Japan,” Kamei says, stressing his belief that the U.S. just wants bases in Japan. Anything they say about “welcoming” the SDF’s participation in activities overseas is lip service.

Ishihara thinks Kamei has it backward, but agrees that the Constitution must be changed before any troops are sent abroad. Article 9, which denounces war, is “great,” he says, but only “if there is a guarantee that war will never occur.” He then makes an odd analogy: “If it was written in the Constitution that Japan will not have any typhoons, does that mean they will never occur?”

As ridiculous as his rhetoric is, it props up Ishihara’s view that the government is better off talking about the SDF’s role in a realistic fashion. The world is a contentious place, the possibility of conflict ever present. Though he doesn’t necessarily think the SDF should fight for non-Japanese interests, he thinks it should be ready for battle and that Abe was “lazy” for not talking about it.

Ishihara is thinking of China, his eternal bete noire. Kamei counters that Japan could never fight the Chinese on their own and that America’s own interests prevent it from confronting China militarily.

“The relationship between China and the U.S. goes beyond Japan’s involvement,” he says. If Japan wants to spend more on weapons, which seems to be America’s desire with regard to a larger SDF role, that’s fine, but such spending should be based on defending Japan.

But then Kamei asks the question Abe wouldn’t answer: If the new law is implemented and the SDF is sent to the Middle East, is Japan ready to see some of its members die?

“No, Japan isn’t,” Ishihara says, and he uses another strange analogy that nevertheless reveals more about the problem than it is designed to explain. He mentions a physician acquaintance who marveled at the resourcefulness of American troops during the Vietnam War. If a soldier was badly wounded, the company medic — or even a fellow soldier — was trained to stop the bleeding and immediately administer morphine so the wounded man could be transported to a hospital. Japanese soldiers are prevented from doing such things in the field by the health ministry. The point Ishihara is making is that, yes, Japanese troops will die, and laws have to be changed so that more can be saved.

“It’s still taboo to talk about these things,” he laments, and goes on to say that the SDF does not even have rules of engagement. “What military in the world doesn’t have rules of engagement?” he asks incredulously, recalling that in the past, anyone in the former Defense Agency who even mentioned such matters “was fired.”

Ishihara, per his reputation, is all about military engagement, and he insists that unless these issues are addressed openly, the security bills, which he “likes” in principle, are pointless. However, he ignores public perception, which is such that most citizens simply cannot fathom the SDF in a battle situation.

Even the SDF can’t fathom it, as indicated by former SDF doctor Sho Fukuma, who, in the July 17 Asahi Shimbun, explained the “significantly high” suicide rate among SDF personnel who carried out “humanitarian work” in Samawah during the Iraq War. Their base was always under threat and the men had no idea how to address that threat. They worked and worried. Consequently, Fukuma thinks the security bills are premature, since the government won’t acknowledge how unprepared the SDF was in Samawah.

“They didn’t learn anything,” he says.

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