Since the regular Diet session opened in January, members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet have been embroiled in a series of gaffes and problem behaviors, adding to the administration’s woes over the suspicions surrounding the Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen.
The fiasco over the daily activity logs of Self-Defense Force troops deployed to South Sudan — which the Defense Ministry initially refused to disclose by claiming that they had been “destroyed” — highlighted the lack of grasp of the SDF operations by Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda was unable to answer questions from opposition lawmakers about the meaning of key provisions in the “conspiracy crime” legislation, leaving a Justice Ministry bureaucrat to give the answer to the Diet instead.
Takeshi Imamura, minister in charge of reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake, indicated that people who had voluntarily escaped from the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant do not qualify for government support because those people, who remain hesitant to return to their hometowns despite the government’s policy of trying to promote the residents’ return, evacuated at their own responsibility. He made such a statement even though Tepco, which caused the triple meltdowns at the plant, has not been held criminally liable for the disaster and has only fulfilled its civil liability in limited ways.
In the past — or even a short while ago when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power — such a situation would have forced the ministers to step down, and the whole Cabinet would have been cornered into a crisis. Media opinion polls, however, show that popular support for the Abe administration remains steady at over 50 percent. People continue to support the Abe administration even though they harbor doubts about it. Journalists and scholars like myself who have long observed Japan’s politics can only be baffled by the phenomenon.
One of the things behind the phenomenon is the deterioration in Japan’s security environment and popular sentiment in quest of a strong leader. The biggest failure of the DPJ-led administrations were that they had no experience in diplomacy and national security — and people continue to hold a negative memory of that.
Abe goes on frequent overseas diplomatic tours, and the public image of the prime minister being trusted by U.S. President Donald Trump has been widely circulated. With the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program at hand, people have reasons to think they see no leaders available who are better than Abe.
A problem here is that those in power, in their bid to solidify the administration’s power base, are effectively forcing people to stop questioning the assumption by exaggerating the North Korean threat. Prime Minister Abe said North Korea has the capacity to carry sarin gas on its missiles, but this is guesswork. The Foreign Ministry called for caution on travel to South Korea, but Japan is the only country in the world that has issued such a warning. The misinformation that U.S. carrier Carl Vinson has moved to the sea near the Korean Peninsula has also heightened the public’s sense of crisis.
Yet another problem is that those in power who proclaim to be responsible for Japan’s national security seem to lack a realistic sense of what a war is going to be for the nation. For years, conservatives who preached the necessity of using military force to defend the nation have called themselves realists. We must stop and think, however, what is indeed realistic in the face of the North Korean nuclear crisis.
As a continental nation, the United States will not be destroyed even if a part of its territory comes under attack. It has the military power to crush the enemy state in a counterattack. On the other hand, Japan, with its population concentrated in a handful of big metropolises and with a large number of nuclear power plants on the Sea of Japan coast, could face destruction even under a massive attack using conventional weapons.
A realistic image of a war for Japan would be for Tokyo and the nation’s nuclear plants to be hit by a disaster several times as serious as the Great East Japan Earthquake. Therefore, war can never be an option for Japan — even when justice is on our side and the enemy is at fault. Should the U.S. launch an armed attack, North Korea is most likely to hit back by targeting the U.S. bases in Japan, possibly leaving the nation with crushing damage. The positions of Japan and the U.S. completely differ on this point.
Abe unconditionally supports the Trump administration’s policy that it will consider all options vis-a-vis North Korea. That way of thinking borders on adventurism that fails to consider Japan’s position in this matter. What’s needed to protect Japanese lives is never to let a war happen and to avert the crisis through political means, not military force.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.
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