Feb. 17, 2008
Hisahiko Okazaki / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun
No one knows what lies ahead in Japanese politics. Any attempt to read the future is almost bound to be in the form of enumerating possible scenarios. All one can say at this time about the future of the political world is that we may see such developments as:
— A win by the Liberal Democratic Party in the next general election of the House of Representatives at the cost of losing the ruling coalition’s two-thirds majority in the lower chamber, meaning a continuation of the current messy Diet situation in which the ruling bloc has a majority in the lower house while the opposition controls the House of Councillors.
— A win by the Democratic Party of Japan in the lower house race, leading the DPJ to take power despite fears concerning its ability to take the helm of state affairs.
— Formation of a grand coalition.
— A new round of realignment among political parties.
Whatever the future holds for Japan’s political world, most political pundits seem to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, at least for the time being.
In my view, however, things are more alarming than generally assumed, with several issues needing to be urgently addressed.
Today’s turmoil in the Diet stems from the way the House of Councillors came into being in the process of formulating the Constitution during the Allied Occupation of Japan after World War II.
In framing the top law, the United States initially advocated that Japan’s legislature should adopt a single-chamber system.
Japan, for its part, wanted to create an upper house in which members would be appointed in one way or another to hold any excesses of the lower house in check.
Subsequently, the United States agreed with the Japanese argument, but the Soviet Union and some other members of the Allies’ Far Eastern Commission objected, calling for the members of the upper house to be popularly elected.
The current form of the upper house, with strong powers overlapping those of the lower chamber but not subject to dissolution, was the result.
The stalemate in the Diet today means that this intrinsic problem of the upper house–an unusual entity from the very beginning–has finally surfaced because of the LDP’s crushing defeat in last year’s upper house election.
Shackled by party lines
There is no prospect for a short-term solution to this problem, however.
Some may say the problem would be best solved by revising the Constitution. But given the current situation in which even routine Diet legislation is bogged down, no attempt to revise the Constitution is likely to succeed.
The hubbub in the Diet over the new antiterrorism law to resume Japan’s refueling operations for U.S.-led forces in the Indian Ocean illustrates the near impossibility of party leaders to reach a suprapartisan accord to address tasks of key importance to the nation.
In the worst-case scenario, we could experience a “lost decade” for Japan’s politics and diplomacy, just like we had a “lost decade” for the Japanese economy in the wake of the bursting of the economic bubble in the early 1990s.
The oncoming decade will surely see the strength of China increasingly felt both in Asia and the United States with the balance of power in international relations bound to go through major transformations.
There is a great possibility this country could lag behind all of the other powers in this fast-changing world, as was the case after the “lost decade” left our economy much weaker.
The problem, therefore, is one that must be tackled soon: What must be done to prepare for the possible advent of a political ice age?
Fortunately, the LDP and its junior ruling coalition partner, New Komeito, have a two-thirds majority in the lower house, the legacy of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration.
The constitutional provision bestowing a two-thirds majority in the lower house the power to override a vote by the upper house is the only instrument that offsets the defects in the current Constitution. Since there is little possibility that the current two-thirds majority will remain intact in the next lower house election, the government should use this provision to its best advantage.
From the viewpoint of ensuring and improving the security and prosperity of Japan, there can be no doubt that the task of further solidifying the Japanese-U.S. relationship is of paramount importance. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in his policy speech earlier this year rightly made reference to this.
As long as the nation keeps the outer walls of our homeland firm by maintaining strong ties with the United States, it will be able to cope with any internal turmoil in the next decade or so.
Fukuda, by having the new antiterrorism law approved by the Diet, has cleared the first hurdle standing in the way of bolstering relations between Tokyo and Washington.
None of the major U.S. newspapers, however, saw fit to mention the legislation in their editorials.
Was this because they considered the development a matter of course and not worthy of comment or did it reflect a decline in U.S. interest in Japan? Both of these inferences are probably true to some extent.
The Wall Street Journal was an exception, as it gave words of encouragement to the Fukuda administration in a commentary piece.
“The Japanese Diet voted Friday [Jan. 11] to resume an antiterror mission in the Indian Ocean, to which we say, welcome back to the fight,” the column said. “It’s a signal that Washington’s staunchest ally in Asia hasn’t abandoned its recent ambition to play a greater role in international security affairs, especially in its own part of the world.”
The newspaper went on to say, “Under the leadership of recent Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe, Japan began to accept more responsibility for its own national defense and to play a larger role in international security affairs.”
In conclusion it stated, “It remains to be seen whether Mr. Fukuda fully shares his predecessors’ vision of a revitalized, strong Japan, but last week’s vote suggests he understands what’s at stake.”
This comment is sufficient to gain a good grasp of what U.S. intellectuals, at least those who do not want to overlook Japan, desire of this country.
The crux of the matter for this country is to have a willingness to accept a greater role in enhancing international security and the Japanese-U.S. alliance.
As I noted in my last column on Dec. 16, it is highly important for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense.
If Japan did this, it would be living up to a de facto commitment it made.
Needless to say, the United States has consistently followed a policy of not interfering with Japan’s internal affairs or putting pressure on this country regarding constitutional revision and the interpretation of the right to collective defense, as these issues are for Japan to decide on its own.
For some time after Abe’s trip to Washington, however, every U.S. intellectual I met was brimming with expectations, saying Japan was, at long last, meeting head-on with the issue of exercising the right to collective defense.
Immediately after his visit to the United States, Abe set up a review panel to consider the collective defense issue, despite the Diet being in session.
However, Abe became ill three days before what was supposed to be the final meeting of the review panel on Sept. 15.
Looking at the first two of four examples relevant to the review is sufficient to understand what the United States expects of Japan.
First, in the summer of 2006, North Korea test-launched missiles potentially targeting Japan, leading the U.S. Navy to deploy two Aegis-equipped destroyers in the Sea of Japan.
The Aegis destroyers were fully occupied with tracking North Korean missiles, and they needed to be protected from possible attacks by that country.
Japan’s naval and air forces, nevertheless, were unable to perform this task, simply because that would constitute exercising Japan’s right to collective defense.
The second example studied by the review panel was even more glaring: A scenario in which a missile had been launched by North Korea in the direction of the Japanese archipelago but which was predicted to pass over Japan and strike Guam or Honolulu or some U.S. military installation or vessel in the Pacific. The existing government interpretation is that Japan could not shoot down such a missile, since doing so would be tantamount to exercising Japan’s right to collective defense.
It is worth noting that both Guam and Honolulu have bases essential to the defense of Japan.
I’m sure many readers of this column, and a majority of U.S. citizens as well, are unaware of this situation.
Thinking about how the general public in the United States would react should they be aware of this situation and what might then happen to the security of this country sends a shiver run down my spine.
Summaries of the discussions that took place in the review meetings–five were held between May and August last year–are available to the public.
Experts in international law and constitutional research would probably be hard put to find a counterargument to the detailed in-depth summaries, which appear in Japanese on the homepage of the Cabinet Secretariat. They could easily be compiled into a full-fledged report.
Fukuda should serve out term
The problems relating to the nation’s right to collective self-defense have been pending ever since the 1960 revision of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty under the administration of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was forced to step down before accomplishing his political agenda.
The task of solving this issue was long overdue even after the administration of Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, who had to give up on a second term in office after his defeat in an LDP presidential election in 1978 that he famously blamed on “strange voices from heaven.”
I strongly hope Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will remain in office to the end of his tenure. I would like to see him fulfilling the political undertakings Kishi, Abe’s grandfather, or Takeo Fukuda, the current prime minister’s father, were unable to carry through during their prime ministerships.
First, and most important, the government must declare to accept the conclusions of the review panel concerning the right to collective self-defense. This is possible only if the prime minister is resolved to do so. It will serve as a guiding principle for charting future security-related legislative arrangements.
Second, several provisions of the Self-Defense Forces Law should be revised in connection with the exercise of the nation’s right to collective self-defense. This could be carried out by making use of the current two-thirds majority of the ruling coalition parties in the lower house.
Fukuda has earned a reputation for being highly competent in “making things happen” by finding common ground among people of different views through consultation.
There is no time to lose, however.
Since he now holds the premiership and not his former post of chief cabinet secretary, I urge Fukuda to take a firm stand and act on his own initiative to prepare the nation for a political ice age, leaving an important legacy behind in his name.
(Okazaki served as Japanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand. He is currently a guest research fellow at the Yomiuri Research Institute.)