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Acceptance of a new Japanese military is growing - and other changes

By Adam Wand - posted Thursday, 5 June 2003

The contemporary nature of Japanese politics, as reflected in the existence of a willingness to overturn well-established norms and the apparent clear support for such changes by the Japanese electorate, appears to be on the march.

This shift, an important development for Australian policy in the region, appears in its most arresting form in the recent raft of Bills that have just been overwhelmingly passed, with cross-party support, by the Lower House of the Japanese Diet. The Bills crank up military and emergency contingency preparedness, revamp the Japanese National Security Council and usher in sweeping reforms of the Japanese Self-Defence Force (SDF). Most importantly, they have huge street-level support.

While aspects of the Bills are possibly cause for some good humour (for example, they will remove the necessity for Japanese tanks to obey red traffic signals during times of national emergency), the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has highlighted the gravity of the Bill's main objectives by stating that they aim to "provide the government with an overall framework to deal with 'contingencies' (defined as situations where Japan is exposed to danger from external threats)". This is sweepingly assertive language by Japanese standards and while the Bill package, in the legislative pipeline since 1977, represents the current peak in official reformist activity, this newly found assertiveness doesn't end there.


The recent revelation by the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to a parliamentary committee that he desires the renaming of the SDF - so named due to the post-war peace constitution's prohibition on the maintenance of a Japanese military - to better reflect its true nature as a powerful regional military of 240,000 personnel and his assertion that Japan holds a clear right to use pre-emptive force when and where it feels applicable, has set many a regional alarm bell ringing. History is a powerful thing in this part of the world and the reaction to such statements has been, as may be expected, unequivocal and tense.

But what is driving these machinations?

Structure and events are clearly the taproot causes. The basic plot to this increasingly dramatic production stems from the need to react to the growing effects of the structural dislocations in the Japanese economy (levels of government debt now defy easy comprehension) and within Japanese society (the unparalleled ageing of the population continues apace and unaddressed). These factors are coupling directly with a growingly evident anxiety about the inexorable shift in the balance of power in Asia away from Tokyo and towards Beijing.

While this represents the social framework, external regional and international protagonists are increasingly also driving events. Without doubt, Japan's failed rapprochement with North Korea (Koizumi became the first Japanese PM to visit Pyongyang in 2002) and that regime's subsequent belligerence amount to the single biggest issue at play. The global war on terror and pressure from Washington to support its multifarious international adventures are also highly important.

The angst in Japan with regards to the North Korean situation is difficult to measure from outside the country. Ever since North Korea test fired a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan in 1998, a debate has raged between those pushing for a marked step-up in national preparation so as to face off with Pyongyang (including full involvement in US-led theatre missile defence and the passing of the SDF Bills) and those calling for dialogue and normalised relations. It appeared, with the Koizumi visit, that the latter group had won out, leaving many, including the always entertaining Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara (just last month re-elected by a landslide), making claims of "weakness" and "delusion".

While issues such as Korean narcotics trafficking receive some media attention, the true bombshell was dropped when North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il admitted that the communist state's special forces had in fact kidnapped a dozen Japanese nationals in the 1970s, literally off beaches on the Sea of Japan coast, and that most of them had since died. Those still alive were soon returned to Japan amid an amazing glare of media attention (although their children remain stranded in diplomatic limbo in North Korea).


The level of rage in Japan was understandably high, but its perpetuation by the mass media has become disturbing and deserves more serious international attention from neighbouring states, including Australia, as we attempt to formulate policy that fully appreciates the domestic drivers at play.

The every move of the returned abductees is grist for the mill. One recently began working as a nurse and this warranted blanket nationwide coverage, often ahead of reportage of the war in Iraq and other world events.

The Japan Times has reported on the systemic telephone and email harassment of those believed tolerant of normalisation with North Korea. Unhealthy obsession is not too extreme a description, with such hysteria being fuelled by doomsday images of a nuclear-armed North Korea. The forces pushing a conservative and increasingly aggressive policy agenda are now firmly ascendant. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the backroom Machiavelli of Japanese politics and the chief negotiator for the government on behalf of the families of the abductees, recently echoed growing popular sentiment and outlined how Japan's possession of nuclear weapons would not amount to an offensive capacity in breach of its constitution.

Into all of this will soon travel the Australian Prime Minister. John Howard's visit to Tokyo, slated for early July, will arguably be the most complex in recent memory. Trade remains, as always, a big issue but regional security is now the central consideration. While the facts surrounding Japan's shifting mindset have now become apparent to Australian policy makers, our public appreciation of the true depth of the sensational emotions motivating these changes appears to remain low and must be quickly addressed. An awareness should coalesce that the seachange underway here is perhaps akin, although less acute, to the Australian reaction to Bali - deep, emotive and angry.

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About the Author

Adam Wand is a former senior political advisor. He served as a Chief of Staff in the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments from 2007-10. He is also a participant in the Australian American Young Leadership Dialogue.

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