By Adam P Liff
Shigeru Ishiba is something of an anomaly in the Japanese political world. His soft-spoken and reserved manner belies his high level of competence. Experts credit his ability to boil down complicated defense and foreign policy issues into an easily digestible form as one of the main enablers of Japan’s rapidly transforming security policy. His relative youth, coupled with a formidable support base in his hometown all but guarantee that he will remain a prominent figure in Japanese politics for years to come.
The security hawk?
In a party with a tradition of distributing cabinet posts based on age rather than expertise, the appointment of Mr Ishiba, now 51, to the top post of the former Japan Defense Agency (JDA) six years ago was remarkable. Often characterized as a ‘military geek’ (gunji otaku), he is widely respected for his acumen and vast understanding of defense and legal issues. Although quick to acknowledge an interest in military equipment dating back to his youth (he is reported to still be an avid builder of plastic model airplanes and warships), Ishiba claims he had no intention of becoming a defense specialist until witnessing Japan’s bemused response to the 1990–1991 Gulf War. “The way in which politicians, officials, scholars, and the Japanese people were at a total loss for what to do was an incredible shock to me,” he explained during an interview in his Diet office. “It was as if nobody had ever thought about how Japan should respond in such a situation before.” Although Mr Ishiba’s advocacy of a more proactive international role for Japan’s Self-defense Forces (SDF) has since led some critics to label him a ‘hawk,’ a deeper investigation into the views of this self-proclaimed ‘quiet realist’ reveals a more complex picture.
Ishiba’s two-year tenure (Sept 2002 to Sept 2004) as JDA director-general coincided with an epochal period in the history of the Self Defense Forces, and there is no doubt that he was one of the key players in its transformation. In addition to advocating a reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow pre-emptive missile strikes, he successfully oversaw the 2003 launch of Japan’s firstever spy satellites, championed joint development and implementation of a ballistic missile defense system with the United States, and, after staunchly defending the legality of the Iraq War, paved the way for the first non-UN sanctioned overseas dispatch of the SDF since the end of World War II.
Although it may be expedient for some liberal critics to group Ishiba with the revitalized (ultra-)conservative wing of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) because of his impassioned advocacy of a more proactive foreign policy, conversations with experts here in Tokyo effectively gainsay such claims. In contrast to most “nationalist” politicians, one scholar contends that Mr Ishiba is a “deep thinker” whose “opinions about foreign policy are based on logic and an understanding of the issues rather than rhetoric or ideology.” Ishiba’s very public opposition to several of the conservatives’ pet issues further distances him from this group. In the last several years he has expressed disappointment in several popular conservative weeklies for becoming “outlets of propaganda,” openly criticized former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s revision of the Basic Education Law to instill patriotism in Japanese youth, consistently opposed prime ministerial visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine honoring Japan’s war dead, and expressed concern about the dangers inherent in Japan unilaterally pursuing a hard line vis-à-vis North Korea.
At first glance, Mr Ishiba, whom one opposition lawmaker described in an interview as a “shy, weird, and strange man,” seems an unlikely presence in Nagatacho. Supporters and critics agree that if he wants to increase his political influence and avoid being pigeonholed as a ‘military geek,’ he must dramatically expand his policy outlook and expertise. Although former prime minister Koizumi personally held Mr Ishiba in high enough esteem to appoint him to the cabinet, informed sources suggest that his influence within the LDP during his first term as JDA director–general was so weak that he occasionally had to rely on Yasuo Fukuda (then Chief Cabinet Secretary) to ensure that bureaucrats within the agency followed his directives.
In spite of current shortcomings, however, there is no doubt that Ishiba has been blessed with inestimable political skills. In contrast to the confrontational and bombastic style used by many of his colleagues during Diet sparring sessions, this former national law debate champion remains calm and composed even in the face of opposition vitriol. Perhaps his greatest gift, however, is an almost uncanny ability to explain complicated LDP initiatives of all sorts, from SDF dispatch to postal system reform, in layman’s terms.
Ishiba also enjoys a remarkable pedigree that is invaluable in a conservative, rural prefecture like Tottori. He is the eldest son of the late Jiro Ishiba, who served as vice-minister in the (now-defunct) Construction Ministry, a Diet member in the Lower House, and governor of Tottori from 1958–1974. This pedigree, coupled with an impressive commitment to his constituents (he claimed in a column published in Nihonkai, a local paper, that he visits his constituency as often as four times a week), ensures that he has a very strong support base. Despite challenges from three or more competitors in each of the last four elections, Ishiba still managed to pull in an average of 60% of the vote. One local resident remarked, “his organization is so strong in Tottori that I can’t imagine him ever losing an election.”
Prime Minister Ishiba?
Interviews with scholars and politicians suggest that Ishiba’s reputation as a defense policy wonk, coupled with his relative weakness within the party, make him an unlikely candidate for the LDP presidency. However, the strength of his electoral base, a necessary condition to be considered for the party leadership, shows no signs of declining, and he is still relatively young with plenty of time to broaden his policy scope if he so desires. This may explain why some politicians within the Tsushima faction have begun to suggest that he could be well-suited for more important and powerful positions within the party and government in the years ahead. Regardless of his future titles, it seems quite likely that he will continue to exert an important influence on Japanese military and foreign policy for years to come.
Adam P Liff is a MEXT research scholar affiliated with the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Law and Politics and writes frequently on Japanese politics and foreign policy. He can be contacted through his website: www.adamphailliff.com