Commentary / Japan

On the last day of Heisei

by Kuni Miyake

April 30 finally arrived. It was the last day of the Heisei Era and Emperor Akihito retired, marking the first imperial abdication in more than 200 years. May 1 is the historic first day of Reiwa, when Emperor Naruhito assumes the throne from his father. The world outside Japan, however, seems to be changing on its own merits regardless.

The situation was the same 30 years ago. I vividly remember the beginning of the Heisei Era. It was a cold winter day on Jan. 8, 1989 — a day after the passing of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously named Emperor Showa. I was with the office for Japan-U.S. security treaty affairs in the North America Bureau of the Foreign Ministry. I was just 36 years old.

Five months later, student demonstrators were brutally oppressed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4. On Nov. 9 the same year, East Berlin’s Communist Party changed the city’s relations with the West and the world witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall beginning the next day. The first year of Heisei was also symbolic as the year the post-Cold War era started.

On Aug. 2 the following year, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq abruptly invaded Kuwait, which drastically changed the strategic balance of power between the two coastal areas of the Persian/Arabian Gulf. The United States-led coalition mobilized half a million troops in the Arabian Peninsula. The Gulf War started on Jan. 17, 1991.

Japan was not a coalition member in 1991 because it could not send combat troops to join the coalition forces in the Middle East. What Tokyo could do was just provide financial and in-kind assistance to the coalition members and send mine sweepers to the Gulf in June that year, only after actual combat activities ceased.

In December the same year, the Soviet Union granted self-governing independence to its republics and was officially dissolved. Later NATO expanded and many East European nations joined the European Union. Things were starting to change dramatically in the world while Japan still continued its mourning for the late emperor.

In a sense, the first half of the Heisei Era’s three decades was a painful period of political transformation for Japan, from the utopian pacifism of the postwar period to the realistic and more pragmatic pacifism of the 21st century. The turning point was the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. A week later, U.S. President George W. Bush delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban government in Afghanistan and, on Oct. 7, British and U.S. forces started conducting an airstrike campaign against Afghanistan. On March 21, 2003, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and overthrew the government.

Japan was a coalition member in 2004. It did not send combat troops to Iraq but dispatched a battalion-size humanitarian contingent of the Ground Self-Defense Force to engage in water purification, reconstruction and the re-establishment of public facilities for the people of Samawah in southern Iraq.

Interestingly but not coincidentally, 2003 was the 15th year of Heisei, a turnaround year in the era. Since Tokyo painfully learned important national security lessons during and after the 1991 Gulf War, it must have been easier for Japan to be more pragmatic and realistic in making tough decisions.

While the Iraq War was a turning point for Japan’s national security policy, efforts to reform its decision-making process finally began in 2006-2007 when the first administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to establish a national security council. Although the attempt stalled when he stepped down from office, the NSC was finally established in December 2013.

I was watching the legislative process to enact a law to establish the NSC. The Diet’s two chambers passed the bill relatively smoothly on Nov. 7 and 27, 2013. Since I had been expecting much tougher opposition from Diet members, I was convinced that the Japanese public opinion had matured.

And finally, in 2015, new security-related legislation was passed on Sept. 19, despite some opposition, to allow the Self-Defense Forces to participate in conflicts outside Japan that has serious impact on its national security, by partially lifting the self-imposed ban on exercising Japan’s right to “collective self-defense” for allies.

These are the products of the transformation of Japan’s national security polices in the Heisei Era. The next question will be what Tokyo needs to do in the Reiwa Era to follow up on the developments of Heisei. It is easy to talk about but will be extremely difficult to implement. The following are the reasons why:

1. The world has moved further ahead.

While Japan was catching up with the situation in the post-Cold War period by gradually finishing its homework, the global hegemonic rivalry intensified among the three major powers: the United States, China and Russia. Particularly in the region of East Asia, the security environment surrounding Japan has been deteriorating rapidly. North Korea’s nuclear weapons, China’s more assertive foreign policy, weaker ties between Japan and South Korea and, most importantly, the unpredictability of the U.S.’s East Asia policy, to name a few factors.

2. Utopian pacifism remains.

We should not underestimate the strong opposition from the old-guard postwar utopian pacifists in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan. They are wrong but are also good Japanese citizens whose voices shall never be ignored or made light of.

3. Nothing is enough in national security.

Although what Japan achieved during the 30 years of Heisei was significant, it will not be enough to solve the problems in the Reiwa Era, when Japan may face far more serious threats or contingencies from abroad. What Japan should do in the new era is not to be content with what it has now, but to continue its efforts to upgrade its capabilities in national security, both physically and mentally, to defend itself by defending its important allies, if necessary. Let’s hope that the new Reiwa Era will be as peaceful and stable as Heisei.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.