IZUMI, Osaka Prefecture – As demonstrated by the most recent mass demonstration in front of the Diet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now faces vehement opposition from pacifist elements to the raft of security-related bills introduced by his Cabinet. The hard-core component consists of postwar baby boomers who experienced first-hand the impact of the U.S.-led Occupation involving demilitarization, democratization and pacifist education.
These pacifists in their 60s now occupy leadership roles across Japanese society. Given their age, the situation is transitory in nature, yet salient because the silent majority remains reserved in the predominantly pacifist inertia. With the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito, possessing a two-thirds majority in the Lower House and a simple majority in the Upper House, the bills will surely pass. But forcing their passage would impair the longevity of the LDP government.
Diet deliberations have been trapped in a stalemate of highly legalistic, circular arguments of pros and cons. In July 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe changed the longtime interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution to enable a limited exercise of the right to collective self-defense with the United States and its major allies. Given that this will never be acceptable for fundamentalist pacifists, it is crucial to trace the security policy process that led to the constitutional reinterpretation that serves as the basis for the security-related bills.
The bills are in fact a major legal instrument to implement the new Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines adopted in April. The informal bilateral talks laying the groundwork for the update probably started well before July 2014, when Abe announced the reinterpretation, with Japan notably setting the initiative for the new guidelines.
This is in sharp contrast with the U.S. initiatives for the first guidelines of 1978 and the updates in 1997. Japan back then was reactive due to its fear of being entrapped in a U.S.-initiated war in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Yet faced with China’s rapid rise and the relative decline of the U.S., today’s Japan initiated the talks for the first time, driven by fear of being abandoned by the U.S. should a major armed conflict break out with China.
Japan’s present motive and choice are manifest in the text of the new guidelines when meticulously compared with the 1997 version. Japan now accepts an extensive range of “primary responsibilities” to conduct a variety of defensive combat operations, while the U.S. is committed to “support and supplement the Self-Defense Forces.”
It must be noted that these phrases are used more than a dozen of times in the 2015 guidelines, but only a couple of times in the 1997 edition. As already established, Japan will defend not only its territory, including territorial waters and airspace, but now it has the added responsibility of guarding its air and maritime approaches. To achieve this, Japan would be required to mobilize all of its national power.
More specifically, the U.S. is no longer unequivocally bound to project its air power against enemy bases, including strikes by carrier-based aircraft. This may suggest that Japan would have to shoulder this role. As for missile defense, the U.S. is no longer committed explicitly to operating its system hand in hand with Japan. To counter a ground attack, the U.S. no longer pledges to come to Japan’s assistance. It is assumed that Japan would fight alone in a contingency involving the defense of remote, uninhabited islands, such as the Senkakus in the East China Sea.
All of these changes mean that Japan’s military role will expand significantly, while the U.S. involvement will shrink inversely. Unless a contingency escalates into a conflagration, Japan will have to be self-reliant in its defense. Thus, with the new guidelines, Japan intends to anchor the reluctant U.S. to its defense in the case of a major war with China. Revealingly, in practical terms, the new guidelines require Japan to significantly boost its defense budget and then enhance its military capabilities and preparedness. Unfortunately, the national debate has been limited to longtime constitutionality issues when it should, in essence, focus on strategic issues.
Apparently, this deviation has resulted from Abe’s choice to evade public accountability for the critical nexus of the evolving East Asian security environment and the new guidelines. He has obscured the fact that Japan stands as an increasingly endangered front-line country under the U.S. geostrategy vis-a-vis bellicose China.
He has had senior bureaucrats manipulate the translation of the key phrase in the guidelines: “primary responsibility” has been obscured as “shutaiteki posture,” connoting a mere proactive mental orientation but not a definite commitment to shouldering the principal and initial burden of defensive combat operations. Needless to say, the Japanese-language version of the guidelines is almost always the basis of national debate, especially in Diet deliberations and news reporting. Most specialists in the field are silent about this linguistic manipulation.
It’s perhaps understandable that Abe, desiring to dodge the more burdensome frontal breakthrough that would demand squarely facing the pacifist public opinion, instead took a route that he believed would be much easier. Ironically, he ended up in the current legislative predicament that could jeopardize the medium-term viability of the LDP government.
The ongoing drama that has unfolded in and outside the Diet bespeaks that Japanese democracy is still in the making. To grasp the weaknesses in Japan’s alliance management, the U.S. and its major allies have to pay due attention to the Japanese translation of important security policy documents, in which original meanings may be obscured as a result of domestic dynamics.
Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international politics at St. Andrew’s University (Momoyama Gakuin University) in Izumi, Osaka Prefecture.
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