Commentary / Japan

We need to talk about Abe

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

Recent statements by the government of Shinzo Abe raise disturbing questions about decision-making in Japan. How much room is there in Abe’s political view for questioning or debate or argument, let alone dissent? Or is he just dedicated to rewriting the Constitution to remove the taint of the Occupation, allow fully-fledged military forces, and thus make Japan a “normal” country — without considering what “normal” means or its implications — and to hell with anything else?

Consider some recent actions:

• The passing in late 2013 of the secrecy law, allowing the government virtually unchallenged powers to designate information in the fields of security and diplomacy almost without limits as “secrets,” thus making topics related to the information virtually closed for public discussion.

Abe’s announcement when visiting Cairo that he would provide $200 million in nonmilitary aid to defeat Islamic terrorists, and his swift return to Japan when the terrorists demanded a $200 million ransom in exchange for their two Japanese hostages, both later beheaded.

Foreign Ministry demands that journalist Yuichi Sugimoto, aged 58, surrender his passport to stop him from going to Syria, even though he had specifically said he did not plan to go to terrorist areas.

Continuing government attempts and pressure both in Japan and abroad to soften descriptions of wartime atrocities, notably the official military role in dragooning women into sexual servitude for the Imperial Japanese armed forces.

Teasing previews of how Abe may amend Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 apology for Japan’s colonialism and war conduct when he commemorates the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.

Abe’s announcement that some official development aid could be given to foreign military for “nonmilitary” purposes.

The drip-drip of leaks of Abe’s hopes and dreams for the Self-Defense Forces to establish a worldwide footprint through expanded military missions abroad, even those that would violate the spirit of Article 9 of the Constitution.

Abe’s remorseless determination to rewrite the war-renouncing Constitution as soon as he can (or as soon as politically feasible). Reports that the government is planning to start by introducing a harmless constitutional change, such as environment-related rights, suggest a softening up process, while Article 9 can be sidestepped by “reinterpretation.”

It was surely like waving a red flag in front of the terrorist bull to visit the Middle East and offer money, though in nonmilitary assistance, for countries “contending” with the Islamic State group when Abe knew that terrorists were holding two Japanese hostages. Abe’s offer probably hastened the inevitable fate of the two men.

The effective confiscation of Sugimoto’s passport may seem trivial, but it increased the role of the state as Big Brother, as well as raising questions about the Abe government’s respect for the press and freedom of expression and travel. Where will it stop? Will the government stop anyone heading for any kind of danger zone or doing any perilous job?

The claim that if it did not take Sugimoto’s passport, the government might have to rescue him looks thin when you think about what it actually did to help hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.

Or is the passport confiscation a message to journalists not to raise awkward questions on any difficult issues? According to the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Japan fell from 21st place in the world in 2012 to 53rd in 2013 and to 59th place last year, with “noticeable problems” for press freedom. The report complained of lack of access and threats to journalists seeking information on the Fukushima disaster, and use of kisha clubs to make life difficult for journalists outside the system. It warned that with the new secrets law, reporters are likely to face a tougher time.

Abe’s overriding wish is to amend the Constitution raises important questions. There are strong arguments that it would be honest to admit that, in spite of the renunciation of war, the SDF is as strong as any army, well enough trained and equipped to give China or anyone else a bloody nose if they try to intrude on Japan’s interests.

Critics of the present system say that it leaves Japan’s security dependent on a declining United States that at heart doesn’t give a damn about Japan. Supporters of completely rewriting the Constitution claim that it would give Japan freedom to make its own choices and become the same as any other normal country, even if it means scrapping the fine words of Article 9 forever renouncing the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

But “normal” in the early 21st globalizing century is a faraway place and has many deep, detailed and profound implications. There is a practical economic consideration. In the 1950s, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida politely demurred when pressed by Washington to increase military spending. He preferred to put resources into the economy and rely on the U.S. defense umbrella.

That umbrella and the massive presence of U.S. forces in Okinawa is another tricky issue, which no one, not Abe, nor the U.S., nor the Okinawans is facing honestly. If the Americans leave or reduce their footprint in Okinawa, Japanese troops may fill it. After all, some Chinese hawks stress that Okinawa was formerly the Ryukyu Kingdom that paid tribute to the Chinese emperor from 1372.

What role do Abe and his supporters envisage for Japan’s military if the Constitution is rewritten? They should spell out their hopes and dreams. In the aftermath of the murder of Goto and Yukawa, Abe suggested that the SDF should be allowed to go to the rescue of Japanese in danger abroad. Is he suggesting that Japan should have a team of special forces on standby? He knows how difficult it is for American, or even Israeli, special forces with years of overt and covert training and backed by intelligence and military firepower successfully to carry out a rescue raid.

Does Abe really want Japan to get into this business, with all the heavy expenses involved, especially when there are few places, apart from the immediate neighborhood, where Japanese could pass themselves off as natives prior to any infiltration or exfiltration?

It may seem an extreme risk, but if the “no war” article is removed from the Constitution, freeing Japan and its military forces to play a world role, where will it lead? What price nuclear weapons, if Japan is to be truly normal? Is this a shocking thought? It should be offered as a warning of the slippery slope to becoming a “normal” power. Remember that the road to hell is prophetically paved with good intentions. If China continues to increase defense spending by 10 percent a year, will Japan respond? Have the budget implications of different shades of normality been explored?

There is a famous photograph of Abe as a kindergarten child sitting on the knee of his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a key player in the government of occupied Manchuria and of wartime Japan, so it might be literally said that he learned his politics at his grandfather’s knee. Abe wrote that, “Since my childhood, in my eyes, my grandfather was a sincere statesman who only thought about the future of this country.” He has cited grandfather Kishi as his role model, without explaining how intense is his desire to full a legacy of Kishi or indeed how Kishi’s experiences of war and peace 60 to 80 years ago fit into 21st century Japan.

Japan should worry that Abe is determined to compose a 21st century constitution while simultaneously trying to rewrite the history of 70 years ago. This is playing into the hands of anti-Japan hawks in China, as well as distorting Japan’s own views of the opportunities and costs of rewriting the Constitution.

There are — too few — Japanese who believe that Abe’s wisest way would be to visit China and Nanjing and apologize for whatever atrocities Japan committed in the heat of war; point out — as he has done — that Japan’s postwar record has been exemplary; promise that Japan will pursue a continuing path that will show the world the way to peaceful development; then discuss a revised Constitution on this foundation.

Although opinion polls consistently show a majority of Japanese do not want to get rid of Article 9 and its renunciation of war, Abe is like a robotic tank, insisting on setting the agenda and determined to get his way.

Its Constitution is a country’s lifeblood, its most vital document, and should not become the plaything of one man, however distinguished or determined. Changes should be subject to scrutiny, implications considered, other options weighed, careful attention paid to how new measures may affect the integrity of the old document, and there should be widespread discussion of all options by the Japanese people. Remember that two of the best constitutions begin: “We the people. . . .”

The last war was horrible enough. The prospect is that a future global war would risk wiping out Japan and possibly most human beings. You do not have to be a pacifist to claim that Japan’s “no war” Constitution is an advanced sophisticated document for a 21st century “normal” nation seeking diplomatic and economic friendship with neighbors and the world that do not rely on threats or the force of arms.

An honest Abe should start with “proactive pacifism” that emphasizes pacifism and insists that healing wounds with neighbors China and Korea is a priority, along with recognition of Japan’s common Asian humanity. Otherwise, the road to a dangerous new militarism is wide open.

Abe won a crushing victory in the 2014 general election, but he fought on promises to bring economic success with “Abenomics,” not on the Constitution. However strongly he feels, he is holding the careful mandate of the people. He would be betraying their trust if he does not consult them thoroughly, humbly prepared to bow to their wishes. Does he have this humility?

Kevin Rafferty was managing editor at the World Bank from 1997 to 1999.