Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will probably succeed in strengthening his country’s military. But at what cost?
Japan’s parliament is primed for a showdown over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial security legislation. Abe believes the time has come for the removal of an important constraint that prevents Japan’s military, known as the Self-Defense Force (SDF), from using military means on behalf of others to make a “proactive contribution to peace.”
The session in Japan’s parliament, called the Diet, ends on Sept. 27, and so the Abe cabinet is pushing its legislation forward now to ensure it cannot be derailed by future opposition. This is unlikely, however: Abe has the Diet support to pass his reform into law. The opposition Diet members in the upper house who are determined to stop the legislation are in the minority. And anyway, the Japanese Constitution allows for the legislation to return for a second vote in the lower house — where the prime minister has a hefty two-thirds majority of the votes.
But is Abe going over the heads of the Japanese people to pass this reform? A growing number of protesters, as well as many members of a skeptical public, take issue with Abe’s reinterpretation of Japan’s vaunted postwar constitution, especially Article 9, which outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes. In July, as lower house legislators voted to approve this change in policy, tens of thousands of Japanese protested. Constitutional scholars and political scientists, calling themselves Save Constitutional Democracy Japan, openly contest their government’s effort to expand SDF operations abroad, arguing that Article 9 has been the secret to 70 years of peace. Even the usually supportive newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun recently cautioned Abe that he is raising the public’s hackles by not addressing their concerns.
Abe is no stranger to the controversy surrounding beefing up his country’s military.
Since he took power in December 2012, his cabinet has pursued comprehensive reforms of Japan’s security policy. In late 2013, his cabinet created a new National Security Council, passed a designated secrets law, issued a National Security Strategy, and loosened restrictions on the transfer of defense technology abroad. In July 2014, his government announced that it would reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to allow the SDF to use force in coalition military operations as part of a broad effort to ensure Japan’s military preparedness in a rapidly changing Asia-Pacific. In the two decades since the Cold War ended, Tokyo has struggled to keep up with North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile capabilities and China’s expanding maritime presence.
Yet Abe has had trouble convincing Japanese about the seriousness of these threats. In August, an Abe aide, Isozaki Yosuke, tried to make the case that Japan needs to worry less about legal niceties and more about its defenses. But few in Japan support that view.
Polling data across Japan’s liberal and conservative media indicate that a large majority is dissatisfied with the government’s explanation of why and when the SDF should fight alongside others abroad.
Polling data across Japan’s liberal and conservative media indicate that a large majority is dissatisfied with the government’s explanation of why and when the SDF should fight alongside others abroad. In July, when the lower house approved the bills, Abe’s disapproval rating rose to 50 percent, with an approval rating of only 38 percent. (His numbers have improved somewhat since then.)
Abe has repeatedly argued on the floor of the Diet that Japan should consider overhauling its dated postwar constitution — even as he argues that his military-policy reforms conform to the existing version. In the upper house’s opening session in August, the chairman of the special committee created to deliberate Abe’s security bills, Yoshitada Konoike, angrily decried the rush to pass what opposition critics have called “war bills.” The upper house was created to avoid the mistakes of the 1930s, Konoike said, when its feeble prewar predecessor, the House of Lords, was unable to stop Japan’s imperial military from going to war. And he reminded his colleagues that it is their responsibility to restrain the rash impulses of the more powerful lower house.
Japan’s main opposition parties, including the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the Japan Innovation Party, may not be able to stop Abe, but what they can do is keep his government on the defensive over its military goals. Coming clean on exactly what overseas missions Japan might allow its armed forces to operate in, and under what circumstances, would certainly help. The Abe cabinet has argued for allowing the SDF to use Japan’s alliance cooperation on ballistic missile defense on behalf of the United States and others, for coalition maritime patrols, for minesweeping in the Strait of Hormuz, and for other support and supply missions for the U.S. military long considered central to Japan’s own security. These missions are not new to Japan’s military, but the ability of the SDF to use force alongside other national militaries will be.
Of course, this is not the first time Japan’s military has been allowed greater latitude for defensive operations — it has steadily accrued popular confidence and global respect since the 1950s — but Abe’s reforms are also not the wholesale normalization of Japan’s military that many U.S. planners would like. The parliamentary contest over its limits, or hadome, ensures that Japan’s military remains firmly under civilian control — and has long been central to security-policy making in Tokyo.
The function of hadome is twofold. First and foremost, since the SDF’s formation in 1954, Japan’s opposition parties have sought to slow the dominant Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) efforts to expand alliance cooperation with the United States. This still remains at issue today: Katsuya Okada, the secretary-general of the DPJ, opposes the LDP’s plan of integrating SDF operations with the U.S. military, arguing that this compromises the sovereign discretion of his country’s government.
Secondly, defining what a defensive military looks like involves imagining constraints: Parliamentary debate on Japan’s military has been all about defining new ways to impose limits. Even its name, the Self-Defense Force, indicates that constricted ambition, as does its doctrine of “exclusive self-defense.” In the 1960s and 1970s, politicians sought to articulate new hadome focused on limiting the kind of weapons Japan procured. Today, Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force plans to modernize with new F-35 aircraft — and it operates a sophisticated system of ballistic missile defense. The Maritime Self-Defense Force operates Aegis destroyers with the latest in missile defenses and the best conventional submarine and minesweeping fleets in Asia. Offensive strike capabilities, however, remain forbidden.
Spending became another hadome. As Japan confronted economic setbacks and the U.S.-Soviet détente seemed to ease the Cold War, Tokyo politicians imposed a ceiling of 1 percent of GDP spending on the Japanese military in 1976. This cap on defense spending lasted until Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone approved a $23 billion defense budget in 1987, which at the time equaled 1.004 percent of Japan’s GDP. Nakasone may have removed the formal 1 percent ceiling, but it has remained the framework for the Ministry of Defense ever since. Japan’s 2014 defense budget of roughly $44 billion, a 2.2 percent increase in spending from 2013, is still only roughly 1 percent of 2014’s GDP.
Today, Japanese worry about tensions with China, especially over the territorial dispute in the East China Sea, and about the unpredictability of Kim Jong Un’s government in North Korea and its willingness to use force to provoke South Korea. Yet Abe’s argument about the need for military preparedness has not convinced the Japanese public. The ambiguity over how Tokyo will exercise control over the military, and by what standards governments will judge it necessary to use force, continues to feed skepticism.
Civilian control over the use of force has long been a third rail for Japan’s defense policymakers. Abe must address the outstanding questions of how civilians will make decisions and what will motivate a decision to allow the SDF to use force abroad. Legislative oversight or consultations remain critical to the exercise of civilian control, but there has been little emphasis by the Abe cabinet on how the Diet will play a role in executing his new reforms.
Article 9 has placed a unique hurdle for postwar Japanese defense policymakers regarding the use of force, but requiring government accountability and assurances of civilian control over the use of military force also form a core premise of democratic governance. Japan’s politicians are no different: It is their judgment and accountability, not that of Japan’s military leaders, that the Japanese are calling into question.