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Change Ahead for Japan's Security Policy

Tags: Foreign Policy , SDF , Election , Japan , Security

Watanabe, Tsuneo

April 17, 2009

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The glacial pace of policy change in Tokyo is nowhere more evident than in the area of defense. But an imminent shift in the structure of domestic politics could usher in the kind of leadership needed to bring Japanese security policy into the twenty-first century.

In March this year, several major news outlets carried an Associated Press article titled “Japanese Military Assumes More Global Role,” discussing whether Japan can expand its military role in the world. The article quotes me as saying, “Gradually Japan is moving in that direction,” that is, toward a larger role for the Self-Defense Forces. It also quotes me as noting that  “there is vague consensus among the policy circle. However, there is no consensus among ordinary citizens and politicians.”  In other words, change is coming, but it will take time.

In security as in other areas, I am optimistic about the outlook for long-term change in Japanese policy making at the national level. In the meantime, however, many people inside and outside Japan remain frustrated with the slow pace and inefficiency of Tokyo’s policy-making process.

The biggest causes of the problem are a lack of strong political leadership and systemic fatigue in the government bureaucracy, which—in collaboration with the inner policy circle of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—has monopolized the policy-making process for many years. Another factor is the absence of a strong policy-making infrastructure outside the government, the result of Japan’s failure to nurture world-class independent think tanks.

External and Internal Pressures

Although I have predicted positive change in Japan’s defense policy, I am not suggesting that progress will be rapid. To the contrary, as Japan goes through the trial-and-error process of a major political transition, progress in policy making can be expected to stall. Only after achieving a stable new government through elections based on fair policy competition is Japan likely to overhaul its policy-making apparatus.

Although no one can confidently predict how quickly such change will occur, I firmly believe that movement in this direction is inevitable. The reason is that Japan is facing the effects of rapid globalization with respect to security as well as the economy. The country simply cannot afford to maintain its current inefficient system if it hopes to preserve its status and influence in the region and the world.

Historically, threats and crises from outside Japan have created the impetus for some of the country’s most dramatic internal changes. In the second half of the nineteenth century, faced with the threat of Western imperialism, Japan opened its borders to international trade and shifted from the semi-feudal structure of the Tokugawa shogunate to a constitutional monarchy. In 1945, after losing World War II, Japan shifted again, this time from an authoritarian regime to a democracy.

Of course, the structural status quo in Japan is also facing internal challenges from a frustrated electorate. The current policy-making process has few fans among the general populace, particularly after its failure to deal effectively with either the national pension fiasco or the stagnating economy. The next general election—to be held no later than September, when the current lower house members’ terms expire—has the potential to initiate sweeping structural changes in Japanese politics.

Scenarios for Political Realignment

How will the political map look after the coming election? Although the results may not bring about a decisive regime change, they could nevertheless mark the beginning of a major political realignment.

Currently, few are predicting a clear-cut victory for either the LDP-led ruling coalition or the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Public approval for the DPJ has declined since a close aide of the party’s leader, Ichiro Ozawa, was indicted on charges of violating political fundraising laws. Yet the public’s dim view of Prime Minister Taro Aso and the LDP has improved only marginally. Thus, while it is possible to predict an end to the current LDP-led coalition, it is impossible to forecast the form of the government that will take its place.

Three basic scenarios are possible. One is that the opposition DPJ will win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, wresting control of the lower house from the LDP and its coalition partner, the New Komeito. In this case, the DPJ would initiate moves toward a coalition of some sort, since it lacks a majority in the House of Councillors, and the next election for the upper house will not be held until 2010. The centrist DPJ could have difficulty forming a coalition with the Social Democratic Party of Japan owing to ideological differences on foreign and security policy. In that case, LDP members would have an incentive to defect from their party and join a DPJ-led coalition, inasmuch as no major ideological differences separate the LDP from the conservative wing of the DPJ.

The second scenario is that the current LDP-led coalition will hold onto its majority in the lower house. This is less likely than the first scenario given the LDP’s unpopularity, and even if it comes to pass, the LDP might nonetheless attempt to draw DPJ defectors into a larger coalition, since the current coalition at present lacks a majority in the upper house.

In the third scenario, neither the DPJ nor the current ruling coalition garner a simple majority. In this case, whichever party wins more seats will take the initiative in building a coalition. If the winner is the DPJ, it may be able to attract defectors from the LDP. If the LDP comes out on top, DPJ politicians may defect to join an LDP-led coalition. A “grand coalition” in which the LDP and DPJ join forces may also be possible, although the idea has been unpopular in the past.

Thus, whatever scenario comes to pass, some political realignment seems inevitable in the wake of the coming general election. Moreover, there is a strong possibility that this political realignment will bring about a final decisive break from the power structure that has held sway since 1955—the so-called 1955 regime—creating an unmatched opportunity for Japan to build a more efficient and rational policy-making process, particularly in regard to defense and security.

Final Farewell to the 1955 Regime

The term “1955 regime” (also “1955 setup” or “1955 system”) refers to a political power structure that emerged in 1955, giving the LDP control of the government for the next 54 years, with the exception of nine months in 1993.

Under the 1955 regime, the major opposition force was the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), which rejected Japan’s cold-war alliance with the United States. This gave the LDP a monopoly on political legitimacy by virtue of the party’s commitment to democracy and economic liberalism. Unlike the social democratic parties of Western Europe, which managed their governments while maintaining a military alliance with the United States under the rubric of NATO, the JSP never seized the opportunity to take the reins of government—that is, not until 1994, when it briefly joined an LDP-led coalition after finally accepting the Japan-US alliance as part of its platform. The stability of LDP rule during this period was also supported by fast and steady economic growth and a relatively equal distribution of income and wealth.

Today, however, all the basic forces that kept the LDP in power for a half century have been badly eroded or negated, making a final, decisive farewell to the 1955 regime inevitable.

First, the days of high-paced economic growth are over. As a result, the LDP’s formerly broad and solid economic support base is eroding all along the spectrum, in industry and agriculture, among urban and rural voters alike. At the same time, the end of the cold war and the collapse of the communist bloc has broken the LDP’s monopoly on economic legitimacy.

Japan’s defense and security policy has been severely strained by the dynamics of the 1955 regime over the past 50 years. Since the end of World War II, antiwar sentiment had been widespread among Japanese conservatives and liberals alike, owing to the painful memory of the war and its disastrous consequences. This orientation matched the party line of the JSP, which sought to keep Japan from becoming embroiled in US aggression against the communist bloc. Thus, even while powerful voting blocs kept the conservative LDP securely in power, the electorate counted on the Socialists to block any attempt by the government to modify the interpretation of the Article 9 of the Constitution, concerning the renunciation of war.

Declassified documents that have come to light in Russia and the United States suggest that the Soviet Union provided covert financial support to the JSP, while the CIA was supporting the LDP. The implication is that Japanese politics under the 1955 regime was to some degree a proxy war between the United States (represented by the LDP) and the Soviet Union (represented by the JSP).

Ironically, this proxy war was by nature oriented to preserving the existing power structure. The JSP’s basic objective was not to gain control of the government but to prevent any expansion of Japan’s military role within the Japan-US alliance. Together with the Japan Communist Party (JCP), the JSP succeeded for many years in blocking government efforts to reinterpret Article 9 and give more leeway to Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. The LDP and the central bureaucracy, meanwhile, focused most of their foreign-policy and defense efforts on maintaining the bilateral alliance.

Dawn of a New Security Era

In the context of the cold war, Japan’s territorial defense was directly linked to the West’s strategy to contain the communist bloc. Japan’s basic function within the Japan-US alliance, therefore, was to help prevent a Soviet attack on Japanese territory. As a consequence, the government and the LDP had no need to look beyond Japan’s own territorial defense in formulating security policy.

But with the end of the cold war, the parameters of Japanese security policy changed completely. Internal political restraints on defense policy gradually weakened as the 1955 framework slowly dissolved. In the 1990s Japan began sending Self-Defense Forces overseas for non-combat missions. It also moved to strengthen the bilateral alliance by such means as the 1997 revision of the Guidelines for the Japan-US Defense Cooperation, which expanded the scope of military cooperation from direct territorial defense to contingencies in “areas surrounding Japan.”

Today another major change is under way. In addition to the traditional military threat from hostile states, globalization is creating serious new security threats relating to transnational terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, piracy, climate change, and natural disasters.

Such developments have made Japan’s policy of “exclusively defensive” defense obsolete. The deployment of Self-Defense Force troops to participate in the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Cambodia was welcomed by most of Japan’s neighbors, despite their habitual apprehension about Japanese military power.

That said, reassuring Japan’s neighbors will remain a key consideration. Tokyo must proceed cautiously, taking care not to trigger a traditional security dilemma in the form of a regional arms race. Within these constraints, however, I predict that the aforementioned changes in the nature of the global threat and shifts in Japan’s domestic political structure will open the door to a new era in Japanese security policy characterized by an expanding global mission.


This article is based on a presentation delivered by the author on March 26, 2009, during the 16th session of the Japan-US future leaders policy dialogue (the Tokyo-Reischauer Group). The dialogue, co-organized by the Tokyo Foundation and the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies (of The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.), aims to build relationships between young professionals who will maintain and strengthen the Japan-US alliance.

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