|Abe Shinzo, PM in waiting (AP)|
The latest round of hyperbole overlooks several key factors, one of which is that while Japan may indeed be moving slightly to the right it is only doing so in emulation of its American ally. The gulf between Japan’s inherent nationalism and that of the USA, is at least as great as that between the USA itself and the patriotic fervour of North Korea. Many Japanese politicians want their country to embrace the love of nation, pride in the military and proactive international policy that the USA exemplifies and any political shift needs to be viewed in this context. Additionally, no matter how successful they may be in the coming election. It would take years of gradual change to reach a state comparable to that of the USA.
This is another important factor in assessing Japan’s politics: it can be taken as a reliable rule that any change will be slow and in incremental stages. One issue that commentators have felt the election might influence is Japan’s security policy, with Abe Shinzo (almost certainly the next Prime Minister) having frequently stated his desire to revise Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which prohibits the maintenance of a standing army and the use of force in international relations. For some this shows a turn away from Japan’s pacifist ideals to a more pragmatic realpolitik. Yet Japan has never been a pacifist country. The governing norm is ‘anti-radicalism’ rather than ‘anti-militarism’. The Japanese public have very little interest in foreign policy in comparison to domestic economic and social issues. The result of this is that the government have free reign to act on defense and security issues as they see fit, frequently, as has been the case in Okinawa, overriding public opinion in the service of alliance demands. The state’s similar disregard for pacifist ideals has also been shown in its consistent moral and material support for US military action, even in cases when world opinion has been highly critical of American policy.
Japan is, as such, opposed to sudden change rather than military change and the state’s military policies and legal capabilities have evolved considerably over the past two decades: acceptance of participation in peace-keeping operations, conducting refueling operations for US vessels involved in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, deploying engineers to Iraq, engaging in anti-piracy operations and building its first oversea military base since WWII. None of these changes required revision of the constitution, instead it was simply reinterpreted by the government’s legal scholars and this is a pattern that will, one way or the other, persist in the future.
While many see it as increasingly likely, revision of the constitution will never be a fait accompli. Even if the government has a strong majority in the Lower House elections, a two-thirds vote is required in both houses before revision can be enacted. This suggests little will change until next Summer’s upper house election at the earliest. Even then, a successful vote will only set the stage for a national referendum needing a majority vote to pass. This process will be further hampered by the inevitable horse-trading that occurs between the various political parties. The coming election has twelve separate parties taking part, the highest number in over a decade, ensuring that the next government will almost certainly be a coalition of three or more parties. While much has been made of the sudden rise of the new 'Isshin no Kai' (Japan Restoration Party), which is headed by two of Japan's most well-known rightwing populists, Hashimoto Toru and Ishihara Shintaro, the party's popularity is primarily drawn from dissatisfaction with past governments rather than any strong commitment to Isshin's policies, which remain poorly defined. Should they achieve power as part of a coalition, they will undoubtedly see any initial popularity steadily fall off as voter disillusionment grows, a pattern familiar to Japan's Prime Ministers and one which Abe has already surely resigned himself to.
How the interplay between minor parties might affect constitutional revision can be seen in the way in which efforts in 2010 to relax the prohibitions on arms exports (a measure desperately needed by a faltering domestic arms industry) were delayed for a year by the minor Social Democratic Party, a nominally pacifist party whose support the DPJ needed to pass their 2011 budget. Constitutional reform might be delayed at any point for similar reasons. Yet even if revisions occurs, it is likely to signify only minor, incremental changes rather than the sea change some seem to fear.
One of the issues currently being hotly debated is whether it is acceptable to alter the name of Japan’s military from the ‘Self Defense Force’ to the ‘Self Defence Army’, a question that the Japanese public largely consider self-evident. Another possible revision is the permission of collective defense, i.e. allowing Japan to engage in military operations against any nation that attacks its ally (the USA). While seemingly a large step, many already view Japan’s participation in the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system as de facto collective defense. The key fact is that, even without a revision, Japan is already perfectly capable of carrying out such operations, it simply requires some extended political brokering to 'reinterpret' the existing constitution, something that will invariably succeed if its is felt that the US alliance is at stake. The main impact of a revision, therefore, would be that it removes such time-consuming delays on Japan's ability to take action.
In short, the results of the elections are likely only to matter in terms of domestic political issues. Foreign and defense policy will follow the pre-established path of slow, steady change leading toward eventual normalization. It is instead external factors rather than constitutional reform that are more likely to produce a change in defense policy. In particular, any increased sense of threat from North Korea that may result from nuclear tests in 2013, or greater pressure from the USA to participate in NATO style military operations. These issues, alongside ongoing tension over Japan's littoral claims, will be the real shapers of defense reform in 2013.
One issue, from within Japan itself, that is likely to rise in 2013 and may have an impact on regional relations is Abe’s strong support for examination of war memory and Japan’s responsibility for alleged war crimes. While his championing of this issue has the potential to damage relations with both China and the Koreas, this is another issue that the Western press may find is more nuanced than the manner in which it has typically been portrayed. That said, this is not Abe’s first time at the helm and during his previous term he surprised many by quickly moving to stabilize Japan-China relations that had been strained by Koizumi’s policies. Whatever course he chooses to take on issues of military revision or national pride, it is highly unlikely he will allow them to damage the vital economic ties existing between Japan and her most important neighbour.
|by Gavan Gray|