Commentary / Japan

To counter Abe, opposition must offer viable alternatives

by Christopher Hobson

Special To The Japan Times

With the effective collapse of the Democratic Party of Japan following its inauspicious period in office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party have benefited greatly from the lack of an effective opposition. As Professor Koichi Nakano from Sophia University noted in these pages, “for the first time in postwar history, there is no opposition, no alternative to speak of in the party system.” It is outside of the Diet — literally and figuratively — where Abe has encountered the most resistance.

Two issues that have proven particularly controversial have come to a head this summer: the security reform bills and the return to nuclear power. Both have generated concern and anger, and have led to a much wider range of people taking to the streets. These protests have illustrated that many people are opposed to Abe’s policies, and have further undermined claims that he has a mandate to push ahead with these changes. Missing both in the Diet and the streets surrounding it, however, has been a clearer articulation of realistic alternatives to what the LDP government has been proposing.

When considering these controversial policies being pursued by Abe, there is understandably a tendency to focus on his revisionist beliefs, as well as the LDP’s close ties with the nuclear village. While these are certainly important, it is also necessary to appreciate that he is responding to major strategic questions that Japan must deal with. To successfully oppose Abe, there is a need to come to terms with these difficult issues, and propose different answers, ones that go beyond “no.”

In the case of the security reforms, people are concerned both about the end — effectively overturning Article 9 — and the means — through “reinterpreting” the Constitution. I have previously discussed the threat this approach of “reinterpretation” poses for Japanese democracy, here I want to focus on the reforms themselves. Many protesters are strongly against what they see as an attempt to remilitarize Japan and to destroy its strong postwar tradition of pacifism.

On this issue some perspective is required. Article 9 is rightly admired, and the vision it offers is the possibility of a more peaceful world. Yet Japan has not so much renounced the use of force, but outsourced it, relying on the security guarantee provided by the United States. Japan’s pacifist credentials are qualified by the sizable number of U.S. troops and bases it houses, and its Self-Defense Forces, which are not greatly different to what a normal military looks like.

Given Abe’s revisionist credentials, there are very sound reasons for doubting the motivations behind his desire to push through these security reforms. Nonetheless, the security challenges Japan faces in East Asia are real. China has adopted an increasingly aggressive posture in the region, North Korea remains as difficult to read as ever, and confidence in America’s reliability as an ally and responsible leader is not what it once was. This does not necessarily mean that Japan should abandon Article 9, or that it should become more militarily active.

Yet these security dilemmas cannot be wished away, and it is valid to consider whether adjustments are necessary. For those who strongly defend Japan’s pacifist tradition, there is a need to clearly explain what this means in relation to the American alliance, as well as the challenge posed by China’s increasing assertiveness.

Another issue that has generated considerable controversy and protest is Abe’s resolute support of the nuclear industry. In the face of widespread public opposition since the Fukushima nuclear accident, the LDP government continues to regard nuclear as a necessary part of Japan’s energy mix. Japan has now officially returned to using nuclear energy, following the recent restart of Kyushu Electric Power’s Sendai No. 1 plant and with other reactors likely to follow. This is despite a majority of the public remaining firmly against the use of nuclear power, as grave doubts remain about the safety of this energy source and an abiding sense that the Fukushima disaster has still not been properly accounted for.

These concerns surrounding nuclear power are understandable and valid. Yet too often the issue is presented as one between the risky choice of using nuclear energy and an alternative seemingly devoid of risks, often couched around faith in the possibilities of renewables.

Unfortunately there is no risk free option: each has its costs and drawbacks. And to date, no nuclear power means more coal. In the year through March 2014, Japan’s emissions rose to 1.41 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, the second-highest on record and up 10.8 percent from 1990. This is mirrored by Germany’s experience, where its post-Fukushima Energiewende (energy transition) policy of phasing out nuclear and moving to renewables has actually entailed an expansion of coal and gas usage.

Most scientists argue that the world is very close to passing the point of no return with climate change, and there is a need to drastically reduce carbon emissions immediately. Japan has an important part to play as the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It is also a country that is acutely vulnerable to natural hazards, and will surely suffer with the increased number and intensity of extreme weather events that climate change is bringing. With nuclear power, Japan has a very low carbon energy source readily available. For those opposed to nuclear power, there is a need to seriously consider what Japan’s short to medium term alternatives are, because continuing to emit carbon at the same rate is not a viable solution.

The considerable distrust over Abe’s motivations in pushing through the security reforms and in returning to nuclear power is easy to comprehend. Yet these are policy responses to serious strategic dilemmas facing the country. How should Japan protect itself in a region increasingly shaped by an assertive China and a weakened America? How can a resource poor country balance its energy requirements with economic, societal and environmental concerns?

Simply rejecting Abe’s answers to these questions is not sufficient. There is a pressing need to formulate viable alternatives and advance different visions of Japan’s future.

Christopher Hobson is an assistant professor of political science at Waseda University.