The LDP agrees on something

While the Nishimatsu scandal continues to ripple through both the LDP and the DPJ and while all wonder whether next week will see Ozawa Ichiro's resignation as DPJ president, LDP members of all stripes continue to criticize Ozawa for remarks made prior to when the scandal broke regarding the future of the US military presence in Japan.

Prime Minister Aso Taro, speaking to the LDP's Hiroshima prefectural chapter last Saturday, singled out Ozawa for criticism, arguing that his perspective is unrealistic — without a sizeable increase in the defense budget Japan cannot meet threats from abroad alone — and therefore irresponsible.

Foreign Minister Nakasone Hirofumi, speaking in Kanazawa on Sunday, echoed the prime minister's remarks, describing Ozawa's remarks as "irresponsible" for questioning the US presence in Japan, which he described as essential for stability in the area surrounding Japan.

But criticism of Ozawa is not limited to members of the government. Koike Yuriko, stepping up her quixotic campaign against the prime minister, has decided that the key to elevating her profile is in attacking Ozawa and the DPJ, especially on security policy. In an appearance in Nara prefecture, she suggested that security policy ought to be the central issue of the general election, because the DPJ is all over the place on security policy and would prefer that discussing security policy were taboo. (Ozawa's remarks by their very nature belie the idea of the DPJ's making security policy a taboo — as far as I can tell, the LDP is the party trying to make a taboo of a foreign policy issue in asserting the sacrosanctity of the US military presence. But I digress.)

It is the rare issue that can get Aso and Koike to agree, but Koike is being a bit too clever if she thinks that the key to LDP victory lies in a debate with the DPJ over security policy.

Is the public concerned enough to be unsettled by Ozawa's questioning the long-term future of the US military presence in Japan? The cabinet's latest defense affairs survey — mentioned in this post — says relatively little about public attentiveness to defense issues. Yes, the first question found that 64.7% of respondents are interested in the JSDF and defense issues (50.6% interested to some extent, compared to 14.1% extremely interested), but this survey provides no sense of where defense issues rank in comparison with other issues of concern to the public. The most interesting data points concern the value of the alliance. 76.4% of respondents (31.3% see it as useful, 45% agree that if they had to say, they would say it's useful). 77.3% of respondents support the status quo in US-Japan defense arrangements, with USFJ working with the JSDF to defend Japan. Only 9.9% support the proposition that Japan should defend itself by abrogating the US-Japan security treaty and having the JSDF alone defend the country, while a mere 4.2% support the "pacifism in one country" idea of abrogating the security treaty and shrinking or elimanating the JSDF. But this question does not provide the Ozawa option of a minimized US presence (under the treaty, of course) and a bolstered role for the JSDF in defending Japan.

The survey does find that respondents are insecure: 69.2% feared that Japan could be dragged into a war, with the leading reason being "international tension and conflict" (cited by 75.4% of those who feared war). It also suggests that Japanese are minimally afraid of being entrapped by the alliance, with 16.7% of respondents fearing war believing that the security treaty would be the reason, compared with 45% of the respondents who felt that, thanks to the US-Japan security treaty, Japan will not be swept up in war. At the same time, however, the survey did find some evidence of fears of abandonment by the US, as "the relationship between China and the US" ranked fourth among matters of interest to Japan's peace and security following the Korean peninsula, international terrorism, and the Middle East, and slightly above China's military modernization and maritime activites. (Korea I understand, but international terrorism and the Middle East ranking above concerns about China? It seems hard to believe.)

But does all of this add up to condemnation for Ozawa and the DPJ and support for the LDP? This is a picture of a Japanese public increasingly alarmed by the world beyond Japan's shores. The public does not want to abandon the alliance, which at this juncture would mean that Japan would be friendless as far as security goes, but that does not mean that the public has any great love for the alliance either. This survey suggests that Japanese citizens see the alliance as necessary — what alternative is there? — but they do not see it as a vehicle for either assisting the US internationally or contributing to global peace and security. There is a substantial drop from respondents who view the defense of Japan as the JSDF's primary mission (70%, following the 78.4% who see disaster relief as its primary mission) to the 43.6% who see "peace cooperation activities" as the JSDF's raison d'etre. The breakdown is largely the same when respondents were asked about what role the JSDF should play in the future.

There is little desire to rock the boat, which translates into support of the status quo in which US forces are based in Japan, play an important role in defending Japan alongside the JSDF, and to a lesser extent ensuring peace and stability in East Asia as per Article VI of the treaty. I wish this survey had included a few other questions pertaining to the appropriate level of US forces in Japan, the role they ought to play, the precise nature of "international tension and conflict," and amount of support for the current level of defense spending, but the picture that emerges is of a Japanese people with comparatively little interest in an expeditionary role for the JSDF and more interest in how Japan is to defend itself in an uncertain international environment. For the moment the public is content that the US is an important part of the defense of Japan, but does the public think and accept the alliance as an indefinite arrangement, and does it accept that it is best not to talk about the possibility of an alternative to the current arrangement?

All of which goes to say that LDP leaders are mistaken to conclude that they will be able to score political points by hammering Ozawa for his remarks. The public is worried, but I would wager that whatever worry is captured in this poll is outweighed by worries about matters closer to home. Should the LDP decide that defense policy ought to be the basis, it may discover for the second time in as many elections that there is a price to be paid for ignoring the priorities of the public.

Meanwhile it is worth mentioning that the Nakasone and Aso critiques of Ozawa, at least as reported in the media, do not disagree with Ozawa in principle, but criticize him on pragmatic grounds, for being irresponsible in proposing an alternative to the status quo that might anger the ally upon which Japan is dependent for its security. I think any conservative arguing in good faith has no choice but to take this line of attack; there is too much history of conservatives, including the august progenitors of the prime minister and the foreign minister, railing about independence and autonomy for them to attack the principle of more independent Japanese defense capabilities. Indeed, one does not need to go back in time to find conservatives making this argument: Sakurai Yoshiko, in an article in the March 12 issue of Shukan Shincho, takes the benign out of benign neglect from the Obama administration, and argues that the new administration is slighting Japan to treat with China — and that China would prefer a Japan restrained by its dependence on the US military. There is a gap between Sakurai and the conservatives in power in the LDP, but just how great a divide is unclear. What is clear is that for now it is politically expendient for LDP officials to defend the status quo on security policy, and, moreover, Ozawa's off-the-cuff remarks notwithstanding, the DPJ is hardly offering a radical departure from the status quo.

Despite Koike's desire for a national security election, the forthcoming general election will resemble the last general election, focusing on pensions, health, jobs, and overall confidence in the ruling party.


Other posts by Tobias Harris:

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