Japan firmly on a conservative path

Posted in Japan | 02-Sep-06 | Author: Hisane Masaki

Shinzo Abe

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, now widely believed to be a shoo-in to succeed Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi this month, has made it clear, if ever there was any doubt, that he will pursue an ultra-conservative, nationalistic and pro-US political and foreign-policy agenda.

Abe is widely known for his hawkish position toward China and South Korea. He is a proponent of a more assertive Japan. Abe's policy goals as the new prime minister will include, among other things, giving Japan a greater military role abroad through such means as promulgating a new constitution to replace the post-World War II pacifist constitution and strengthening a security alliance with the United States, Japan’s most important ally. Abe aims to strengthen the premier's political decision-making powers on defense and foreign affairs.

These goals, coupled with Abe's nationalist views on history, hawkish stance on such countries as China and firm support for the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo seen as glorifying Japan's militaristic past, will stoke concerns among Asian neighbors, especially China and South Korea. This prospect augurs ill for Tokyo's relations with Beijing and Seoul, which remain strained by territorial rows, disputes over natural resources, and differences over World War II history.

Koizumi steps down in late September when his current three-year term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party - and hence as premier - expires. The LDP presidential election is slated for September 20. In a long-awaited move, Koizumi's protege, Abe, formally threw his hat into the ring in the LDP presidential race and unveiled his campaign manifesto on Friday evening. Abe has important rivals, but his election is considered assured.

One of Abe's first moves as premier will be to push ahead with promulgation of a new constitution to replace the one written during the postwar US occupation. 'It has been 61 years since the end of World War II. We must, with our own hands, create a new constitution. The time has come to exercise leadership in the making of a new constitution,' he said recently.

Japan's current charter was drafted by American lawyers in 1947 after the Japanese diet (parliament) failed to produce one that satisfied General Douglas MacArthur. The new document, containing the famous war-renouncing Article 9, was then submitted to the diet, which dutifully ratified it.

The mere fact that the charter was written by foreigners has always rankled conservatives in Japan, who wish to see it replaced with a purely Japanese one. Establishing a home-grown constitution has been part of the ruling LDP's manifesto since it was founded in 1955 through the merger of two conservative parties.

Indeed, it could be argued that constitutional reform is in Abe's blood. His grandfather on his mother's side, the late prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, lobbied for revision when he was in office in the 1950s. He was also instrumental in ramming the current US-Japan security treaty through the diet, an act that set off riots that forced US president Dwight Eisenhower to cancel a planned visit to Japan.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its founding last November, the LDP unveiled its draft of a new constitution. It would clear the way for Japan having a greater role in international security by rewriting - though not necessarily dropping entirely - the famous Article 9, which reads:

Aspiring to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency will not be recognized.

The LDP draft calls for, among other things, adding a clause that explicitly authorizes the use of force for defense against aggression directed at Japan and authorizes more active participation in international peace-cooperation activities.

Although the words as written clearly prohibit any kind of Japanese military force, the document has long been interpreted to permit the existence of the euphemistically named "Self-Defense Forces". That's how Japan has an army of about 240,000 troops and sustains one of the world's biggest defense expenditures. Successive governments have explained away the contradiction by claiming that the SDF is not a military.

The initial LDP draft set a nationalistic tone, with its preamble containing references to the "love of the nation" as well as Japan's tradition, history and culture. But that tone was significantly watered down at the last minute by Koizumi, who apparently feared it would make the LDP draft less palatable to many Japanese by including too much nationalistic wording.

Under Article 96, any amendments must be proposed with support of a two-thirds or more of both houses of the diet and then be approved in a national referendum with a simple majority vote. Legislation setting procedures for such a referendum are still pending in the diet. Although the LDP-New Komeito coalition commands more than a two-thirds majority in the 480-seat House of Representatives after a landslide victory in the general election nearly a year ago, it is still far short of a two-thirds majority in the less powerful House of Councilors.

For many years the main opposition, the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), defined itself primarily as the defender of the constitution and its "no war" clause. It usually won enough seats to prevent revisionists from securing the necessary super-majority to tamper with the document. That's one reason the constitution has never been amended, not even for minor housekeeping changes. But the Socialists broke up in the political reforms of the early 1990, and successor parties have abandoned the JSP's uncompromisingly pacifist stance in the interests of electability.

For many years, even the slightest sign of nationalism in Japan was widely denounced at home as well as abroad as signaling a resurgence of militarism. But the situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Nationalism is on the rise. Many Japanese also feel less secure in the increasingly volatile security environment surrounding their country.

There is growing alarm over potential threats posed by North Korea and China. At the same time Japan is under increasing pressure from the US to shoulder more of the burden of its foreign and security policy, regionally and globally. Acquiring the kind of "self-imposed" new constitution that was drafted by the LDP is not merely a matter of national pride, but something Japanese leaders firmly believe the nation must do to cope with these new challenges.

Abe's firm resolve to seek constitutional revisions may be hailed by the US as clear evidence that Tokyo is going in the right direction to become a more reliable and responsible security partner. But it will very likely alarm many of the country's immediate Asian neighbors who fear that Japan's military genie might finally be beginning to escape its bottle.

With the ambition to become Japan's first prime minister born after World War II, Abe is also determined as premier to clarify Japan's right to engage in collective self-defense -- the right to come to the aid of an ally in case it comes under attack from a third country, something a normal alliance would require. (The current security arrangement between the US and Japan is not, strictly speaking, an "alliance". It obligates the United States to defend Japan; it does not obligate Japan to do anything to help defend the US.)

The Cabinet Legislation Bureau, the constitutional watchdog within the government, has long held a firm view that Japan should have the right to collective self-defense but is not allowed to exercise it under the current constitution. This constitutional interpretation has put severe restrictions on the SDF's activities abroad, often frustrating the United States. Even logistical support for US forces outside of Japanese territory is deemed by many to be unconstitutional.

"When foreign troops who work in joint operations [with SDF personnel] come under attack, do we have to remain silent and just stand by and watch? We need to think about it seriously in the future," Abe said recently.

Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the small opposition Social Democratic Party, was quick to criticize Abe's declared intention to review the government's interpretation regarding the right to collective self-defense. "It is a grave problem. Probably no Japanese prime minister has ever stated definitely that Japan can exercise such a right under the current constitution. Even Prime Minister Koizumi is 1 million times better than Mr Abe," she grumbled.

Beginning in the 1990s Japan has increasingly been called on either to participate in international peacekeeping missions, such as in Cambodia, to cooperate in "global war on terror" operations, such as in Iraq, or to provide more explicit backup and logistics help to US forces in the event of a war near Japan.

Each and every endeavor has required a tortured stretching of the boundaries of the constitution. Most LDP lawmakers now believe the nation should be allowed to exercise the right to collective self-defense so that it can implement its defense and security cooperation with the US more smoothly and effectively.

Abe will inherit and presumably build on Koizumi's staunchly pro-US foreign policy. “'The Japan-U.S. alliance is the most important thing for our country's diplomacy and national security,' Abe said Friday.

Japan and the United States are stepping up efforts to integrate operations of the SDF and US forces in Japan. They have also agreed on closer missile-defense cooperation and deployment of a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at a US naval base in Japan.

Koizumi's government enacted two new laws to enable the SDF to assist US-led military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two laws - the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law and the 2003 Law Concerning the Special Measures on Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance in Iraq - are effective only for a limited period.

The 2001 Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law, which was enacted with a two-year life span, has so far been extended twice. The law is expected to be extended for another year before it expires on November 1. Under it, SDF naval logistics vessels have been dispatched to the Indian Ocean to help supply US-led coalition naval forces' operations in Afghanistan.

The 2003 Law Concerning the Special Measures on Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance in Iraq has a four-year life span. Although Ground Self-Defense Forces deployed in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah under that law returned to Japan in late July, SDF aircraft based in Kuwait are still engaged in transporting multinational forces' personnel and materials to Iraq.

Instead of establishing or extending temporary laws on a case-by-case basis, as it has done so far, the Koizumi government has been considering a comprehensive permanent law to enable the SDF to participate more smoothly in international peace-cooperation activities, including assistance in the restoration of a war-devastated country and dispute settlement by multinational forces.

Abe has called for the establishment of a permanent law to enable overseas deployment of SDF troops. "By establishing such legislation, we could make a rapid response [to an emergency]. The LDP is having discussions on the issue, and the government needs to work toward establishing the legislation," he said recently.

Abe said Friday that he will place priority on Asian diplomacy and work to mend Japan's chilled ties with China and South Korea. But Abe has been purposefully vague about whether he will follow Koizumi's practice of paying respects at the Yasukuni Shrine, actions that have elicited a storm of protests from China and South Korea. Since last year, Beijing and Seoul have refused summit talks with Koizumi. Japanese public opinion has been split almost down the middle.

There is no question about Abe's personal proclivities. After all, his grandfather came close to being the 15th "Class A" war criminal convicted after the war and later enshrined at Yasukuni. (Kishi had served in General Hideki Tojo's war cabinet, but he was never tried.) Abe makes no secret he considers the Tokyo Trials as mere victor's justice. He has visited the shrine on numerous occasions. But he may decide that the visits as premier put too much strain on Japan's relations with its neighbors.

"Japan is keeping its door open, and I would like to see China take a step forward," Abe said Friday. "I think it is important that both of us make an effort."

This is a slightly updated and rewritten version of an article that originally appeared on Asia Times.