Who will be Japan’s next chief antagonist?

by Erik Isaksson

The Diplomat

The last year has seen sharp turns in the relationships between North Korea and its neighbors. After tough rhetoric back and forth between the United States and North Korea, we now find ourselves in a situation where rapprochement seems possible. Throughout these developments, Japan has held firm to a pressure approach that aims to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, and to make the country come to the negotiating table regarding the abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ’80s.

In domestic Japanese political discourse, North Korea has long figured as a chief antagonist, something which has served to uphold the pressure approach. If rapprochement with North Korea becomes a reality, who will come to play this role and what will that mean for international security in East Asia?

In the last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been in political trouble at home. Recent developments on the Korean Peninsula have perhaps handed him a lifeline to divert attention away from the scandals that have caused these problems. While recent developments toward inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean dialogue have, as some observers see it, caught Japan off guard, simply being able to talk about something else is a boon to Abe in the current domestic political climate.

It is conceivable that a diversion of attention away from contentious domestic issues will allow Abe to rise in the polls and ultimately save his prime ministership beyond the September Liberal Democratic Party leadership election. However, questions remain surrounding the impact on domestic politics — particularly the politics of constitutional reform — that rapprochement with North Korea would bring about.

Abe has focused on the North Korean threat throughout his political career. This has arguably been done not only out of personal moral outrage at the abductions of Japanese nationals, but also as a means to achieve a stronger Japanese defense posture and to make constitutional reform seem not only more palatable but increasingly inevitable in the eyes of the Japanese. Without making a judgment on the pros and cons of constitutional reform per se, most analysts would likely agree that the threat from North Korea has been instrumentalized in Japan.

With this in mind, solution or amelioration of issues related to North Korea has not only direct geopolitical implications in the region but also indirect implications through an influence on the Japanese domestic politics of constitutional reform, which in turn indisputably have bearing on regional security.

If we accept the premise that there is strong support among the Japanese political elites for some sort of reform of the constitution irrespective of particular threats against Japan, but that there at the same time is a perceived need among these elites to justify reform through pointing at a threatening entity, a suddenly disappeared North Korean threat leaves a void that must be filled in order to justify and ultimately achieve the policies desired.

Such a discursive void could be filled by China. While there have been some positive signs lately in Sino-Japanese relations — for example, the recent telephone conference between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping — the long-term trend, particularly over the last decade, has been negative. Just looking at the Cabinet Office’s annual attitudes survey, 52.3 percent of Japanese viewed China positively in 1990, while the number had gone down to 14.8 percent in 2012.

Needless to say, a development toward what has been described as increased “antagonistic othering” — production of difference with an other — between Japan and China would not mean increased security in East Asia.

The assumption that issues related to North Korea will get “resolved” anytime soon is likely overly optimistic, as the recent uncertainty regarding the Trump-Kim meeting illustrates. Resolution might even bring about not-so constructive consequences, at least in the short term.

As has been reported on recently in The Diplomat, among North Korea’s backers there is the view that a resolution to the abduction issue that involves “the truth” actually getting out might cause North Korea’s relations with Japan and the rest of the world to become even worse as Pyongyang’s real actions become known.

In either case, the eventuality that North Korea’s role in the Japanese political discourse could be taken up by China is worth some consideration. Whether antagonism with China increases as a result of North Korea becoming unviable in the role of chief antagonist also has to do with the extent to which Japan’s leaders recognize the usefulness of an antagonist in order to achieve domestic policy goals.

While there is reasonably strong opposition to reform of the Constitution under the Abe government, there is a sizable minority — sizable enough that it has periodically, and depending on interview type, constituted a slight majority — among the Japanese that believe that the Constitution should be changed in some way. This seems to suggest that if the Abe government makes way for a Shigeru Ishiba or perhaps even a Shinjiro Koizumi government come September — or if it simply manages to recover from its poor approval ratings — the political climate when it comes to constitutional reform is not that bad after all.

If the basic conditions in terms of public opinion are there, that might mean that stronger “othering” processes become redundant. While China might balk at any type of change to the Japanese Constitution, a process of changing the Constitution that does not involve othering of China in the Japanese political discourse is a much better alternative than a process that does.

Nevertheless, the political usefulness of the North Korean threat, of “othering,” and of security threats in general in nudging domestic public opinion toward constitutional reform should not be underestimated. The usefulness of this political tool is at threat from regional rapprochement. If it is replaced by a political void, which in turn is filled by increased antagonism with a rising and increasingly authoritarian China, the stakes for the region rise to another level.

Irrespective of whether Japan needs stronger defenses or a reformed constitution, those aiming for this ought not overplay their hand in establishing the requisite domestic political conditions for that goal, especially not at the cost of manageable relations with China.

Erik Isaksson is an outreach coordinator and a junior research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. ©2018, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency