Japan’s Step toward Normalcy

by Hishiko Okazaki on 2013年2月26日

Following the launch of a new Cabinet under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, certain elements in Japan and overseas are warning of a dangerous swing to the right in Japan politics. I find their concerns hard to understand.

Objectively speaking, the country is still solidly left of center on issues of foreign and security policy. Indeed, by international standards, Japan remains a pacifist nation — here meaning not simply a nation that loves peace but also something less admirable — oddly out of touch with current realities.

This is clear enough if we compare Japanese attitudes with those prevalent in other countries. Back during the Cold War, when the Soviet threat was at its height, an international survey asked people around the world whether they would be willing to fight to defend their country.

As I recall, some 80 percent of respondents worldwide indicated that they would be willing to do so while far fewer than 50 percent of the Japanese surveyed answered in the affirmative.

Now if we ask the same question in Japan today, we may come up with a higher rate of more than 50 percent. Yet the percentage of Japanese willing to fight for their country would still be substantially lower than elsewhere. The Japanese are not swinging to the right; at the most, they are modifying their starry-eyed pacifism and gradually becoming more normal.

I am still waiting for Japan’s political scientists to focus some of their attention on a much more clear-cut trend: the virtual collapse of this country’s rightwing extremist groups in recent years.

Rightwing nationalism has a long history in Japan, beginning in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Before World War II, agitators and terrorists acting under the leadership and influence of people like Mitsuru Toyama (1855-1944), Shumei Okawa (1886-1957) and Ikki Kita (1883-1937) had a major impact on Japanese society and politics.

The postwar period continued to see high-profile rightwing groups like Daitojuku and Bin Akao’s Great Japan Patriotic Party (Dai Nippon Aikoku To), which were particularly active during the controversies over renewal of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in 1960 and the continuation of the treaty in 1970.

Through much of my intelligence-related career I came into frequent contact with information regarding these groups and their activities. But the stream of such information tapered off quite a few years ago, and these days one hears virtually nothing about those groups. Rightwing groups still exist but clearly they are neither influential nor dangerous enough to merit the attention of government officials and policy makers.

In 2006, after a rightwing extremist set fire to the home of veteran politician Koichi Kato, I appeared on a television talk show premised on the notion that Japan was on the cusp of a surge in rightwing terrorism comparable to that of the 1930s. I shut down the other panelists’ arguments by saying that the crime was an isolated act of a frustrated old rightwinger.

I knew from my information sources that, organizationally speaking, the extremist right was essentially moribund.

Compare this situation with that of Europe, where rightwing nationalist parties with an anti-immigrant agenda continue to attract considerable support. One finds no trace of such xenophobia in the Abe Cabinet or, indeed, in the Liberal Democratic Party as a whole.

In fact, it is telling that none of the plethora of small parties that sprang up in the recent general election ran on platforms comparable to those of Europe’s rightwing nationalist parties. This tells us that Japanese society today is simply inhospitable to the extreme right.

The change we are witnessing is not a swing to the right but a gradual shift toward normalcy. That said, in the context of today’s international political environment, Japan is still far from normal. As a partner in the task of maintaining a regional balance of power, it has fallen woefully short of expectations.

Back in 1978, when Japan and China were concluding the peace and friendship treaty that normalized bilateral relations, China’s big security concern was the Soviet Union. At that time, Beijing actually wanted Tokyo to boost defense spending from below 1 percent of gross domestic product to around 3 percent to help contain the Soviets. Under those circumstances, Japan could have settled the dispute over the Senkaku Islands once and for all had it been so inclined.

Back then, when Washington still recognized both the Republic of China in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, the incentive of defense cooperation vis-a-vis the Soviet threat might have given Japan sufficient leverage to maintain closer official ties with Taipei, helping to put Taiwan on a more secure footing.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Washington pressured its allies to build up their military capabilities and Japan responded positively, opening the way to a new era of cooperation under President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. But even then defense spending barely rose above 1 percent of GDP since Japan was enjoying high economic growth.

After the end of the Cold War this became a major bone of contention with the United States, which spent 6 percent of GDP at the height of the Cold War. Americans began to view the Japanese as freeloaders reaping the benefits of a victory to which they had contributed all too little. The Japan bashing of those years is not something that Japanese people, who were the driving force of Japan’s economic growth, can easily forget.

Today the U.S. faces a major security dilemma. Even as it shifts its strategic focus to China under the current administration’s “pivot to Asia,” its ability to maneuver is severely limited by the need to cut spending to put federal deficit under control.

Washington is counting more than ever on the cooperation of its friends and allies in the region.

In the U.S. media, concerns about a rightward shift in Japan were fairly muted in the days following the LDP’s Dec. 16 landslide. In a Dec. 17 article in The Wall Street Journal, U.S. Japanologist Michael Auslin dismissed fears of Japan’s lurch to the right. An analysis by Australian academic John Lee published in The New York Times the same day made no mention of such a swing, merely welcoming the advent of a government that was likely to take a tougher line with Beijing. Among news items and analyses of this sort, I saw perhaps a paragraph or two raising the possibility of a shift to the right but very few American news outlets ran editorials or commentaries focused on this theme.

Both Nakasone and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who headed the two longest-lived Japanese administrations of the past three decades, built their policies on a firm foundation of trust between Japan and the U.S.

The longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, Eisaku Sato, fell from power after parting ways with the United States over textile trade issues. Having forfeited Washington’s trust, he was blind-sided by the so-called Nixon shocks, a series of abrupt changes in U.S. monetary and trade policy that had profound consequences for Japan.

Today, Washington is relying on Japan’s cooperation to facilitate its pivot to Asia, which is at the heart of its new foreign policy and strategic plan.

For Japan, this presents a unique opportunity. By building up our defense capabilities, removing the legal obstacles preventing us from exercising our right to collective self-defense, and beefing up security cooperation with the U.S., we can place this crucial bilateral relationship on a firm footing once again.