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Despite COVID-19 dominating headlines, the decision on where to place Aegis Ashore in Japan once again made the news this month.

Reports surfaced that the Abe administration had scrapped the idea of deploying the land-based ballistic missile defense system to Akita Prefecture. However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga quickly refuted those claims as rumors, stating that the government was still exploring options within the northwestern prefecture. Thus, the saga over Aegis Ashore continues in ways that may seem inexplicable to many outside observers.

Why doesn’t the national government just pick another location? Who is managing this process with the local community, and why are they having so much trouble? Will they ever find a resolution?

Those questions are not just relevant to the Aegis Ashore deployment, but to defense-related activities all throughout Japan. Some are aware of the so-called futan keigen (“burden reduction”) initiatives related to U.S. forces in Japan, but fewer may understand how compensation politics has affected Japan’s own defense designs, including the introduction of new assets across the country and the Self-Defense Forces’ ability to train effectively. As the Japanese government continues to shift from a Cold War posture toward southwest islands defense, these problems will continue to play out.

Take for example the planned MV-22 Osprey deployment to Saga Prefecture in Kyushu: The location made sense given the SDF’s intent to use Osprey in response to a Senkaku Islands crisis and since the base in Saga already hosts SDF aircraft.

Japan has since introduced some of its MV-22s into the country, but inability to gain local acceptance from Saga officials means the aircraft are relegated to Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture — a municipality that had already accepted the presence of MV-22s owing to its Osprey repair depot. City officials brokered an additional five-year agreement with the central government to host the SDF’s new aircraft, which means the Ospreys will now be based about 1,900 km away from the Senkakus.

Then there’s Japan’s new Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, a critical component of the planned Southwest Islands Defense designs. SDF personnel are having difficulty finding locations to train with the brigade’s new landing craft. Local residents are wary of accepting the use of existing training ranges for ship-to-shore operations, leaving the SDF looking for supplemental training opportunities in places like the United States and the Philippines (e.g. exercises Iron Fist and KAMANDAG).

In another example, the deployment of a SDF missile unit in Miyako Island, Okinawa Prefecture, involved a unique promise to the local community: the unit would not store (of all things) missiles on existing facilities. The SDF apparently missed that key provision of the deal and Miyako residents protested when they discovered that the missile unit indeed had missiles on the island-based installation.

So what gives? One would think there is an easier way to do business, but a whole infrastructure exists that involves a confluence of policy actors and interests. Stuck in the middle are organizations whose sole function is working out compromise between all of those entities: the Defense Ministry’s Bureau of Local Cooperation and the Regional Defense Bureaus spread throughout Japan.

Here’s how this system operates: Defense bureaucrats and SDF organizations come up with an idea of what capabilities to base in locations throughout Japan and what training activities they would like to do in certain areas. There may be several candidate locations during initial surveys, but the government tends to put all of its eggs into one basket for each initiative, picking a single location and dedicating its resources to gaining “local acceptance” from that community.

The central government then leverages the Bureau of Local Cooperation and Regional Defense Bureaus to gain that acceptance through a mixture of information briefings, promises, and negotiation. Underwriting those promises are a series of subsidy laws put in place over the last few decades which open up progressive revenue streams from the national government directly to base-hosting municipalities. Simply put, the more “burden” a municipality “accepts,” the more compensation it stands to receive.

There are several problems with this process. The first is that it incentivizes pushback from local leaders (even those affiliated with the Liberal Democratic Party), since the stronger the opposition, the stronger the municipality’s position at the negotiating table. This ties directly into another problem, which is that the government handcuffs itself in negotiations. Since the government tends to target a single municipality, it limits its alternatives and forces itself into an “all-or-nothing” predicament.

Also, unlike many other countries, Japan does not exercise eminent domain in pursuit of defense activities. In the case that new land is necessary for basing or training, the government does not simply buy out the land by public order, it negotiates temporary agreements with individual landowners or intermediaries for leases. If the parties cannot come to resolution in a negotiation over leasing rights, they are stuck. This means that the government must employ a combination of lofty promises, compensation, and concessions to break impasses and gain local acceptance.

What this drives is something I call cumulative compensation and cumulative concessions. Very few defense activities are one-off events; rather, basing tends to be long term, and training areas tend to be used many times over many years. As such, when certain deals to lease land or gain local acceptance for activities are temporary, it invariably leads to renegotiation. But when you have a system that incentivizes strong opposition, limits alternatives, and uses compensation and concessions to eke out deals, it means that greater compensation and additional concessions become necessary with each renegotiation.

One example of this is the East Fuji Maneuver Area, a key SDF training area that has been around for many years. Since the government does not exercise eminent domain, it leases the land, renegotiating those leases every five years. The landowners have organized and engaged with the government as a collective group, which gives them strength since the government cannot “divide-and-conquer” through separate negotiations.

During every five-year negotiation, the group (the East Fuji Maneuver Area Susono Area Countermeasures Committee) has gained cumulative concessions; namely, the number of days per year that they can access their land. While a few days’ concession here and there may not mean much to government politicians and negotiators at the time, it adds up over the years, and every extra day of access for the landowners means one less day for the SDF to use the area for training. Situations like these have real world impacts on Japan’s defense.

Over time, the process has only become more challenging. Local governments across Japan share long-term strategies on negotiating with the central government and know how to maximize their positions. Meanwhile, bureaucrats and Cabinet members swap out every few years, and often they are simply trying to make it through a single negotiation. As the situation now stands, gaining local acceptance is less about managing the “will of the people” as it is figuring out how to work around the consequences of compensation politics.

It is possible that the government could improve its approach to negotiating with local municipalities: pick several locations instead of just one; modify subsidy schemes to be fixed rather than progressive; buy land instead of leasing it (targeting areas with declining populations) — the list goes on.

However, breaking free of the effects of compensation politics will be difficult to achieve. Much of this will take top-down action from the LDP-led government, but if precedent means anything, most Japanese politicians will be loath to spend political capital on defense initiatives. For many elected officials, it will be difficult to understand why offering seemingly minor concessions on basing or training is worth jeopardizing their own political prospects.

The pros and cons of all of this are in the eye of the beholder. Some will look at this situation and say, “The fact that the government cannot impose something that garners citizens’ protest signifies a healthy democracy.” There’s merit to that: There are Japanese citizens who legitimately oppose Japan’s defense initiatives, and the system gives them an opportunity to shape outcomes.

Others will argue that the convoluted system is not “democracy” but merely a sign that a government responsible for delivering public goods cannot figure out how to do it effectively. There’s merit to that argument, too.

Whatever the opinions may be, the system derived from compensation politics has real and immediate impacts on Japan’s defense designs. The circumstances surrounding Aegis Ashore, the MV-22 deployment, and other southwest islands defense initiatives are only symptoms of the broader issues plaguing the relationship between the national government, local populations and defense organizations. Until the central government finds a cure, these problems will continue to ail Japanese defense.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.

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