Japan's Obstacles to Normalcy

North Korea’s nuclear threat could force Japan to normalize on security issues. Otherwise, domestic politics could undermine the quest for amending the pacifist constitution.

With rise of China and the dangers North Korea poses, many Americans want Japan to assert itself in the security and military realms. If a more assertive Japan does not always move lockstep with the United States as it seems to do now (except, notably, on the Israel-Palestine conflict), then all the better. Cooperation from a confident, comfortable Asian power based on the recognition of a deep strategic confluence is surely better than a timid fellow traveler offering symbolic acts that may create as many operational problems as they solve. Chris Preble's conclusion in "A Plea for Normalcy" that "Americans and Japanese should welcome a transition away from a patron-client relationship, to one based on shared interests, mutual trust and understanding", sums up this line of thinking neatly.

From this perspective, the ascendance of the conservative and staunchly pro-America Shinzo Abe has been a most welcome development. Likeminded Diet members increasingly dominate the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which is by far the senior member in the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition. Many of the younger members of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), also tend to share this view. Most polls show that the majority of the Japanese public now supports the amendment of the pacifist constitution. And legislation to actually conduct the necessary plebiscite is finally a reality. I too share, with some reservations, this desire for Japan to become what is sometimes called a "normal nation."

Unfortunately, this is not going to happen anytime soon. And the reason lies in the dynamics of the domestic political scene, mainly due to the LDP's reliance on its junior coalition partner, the Komeito.

On the national security front, the LDP has always had its share of hawks and doves: Those who chafed under the low-key, make-no-waves diplomatic and security profile adopted by the post-World War II regime and those who were quite comfortable with this state of affairs. (I use the term hawks in the Japanese context; the typical LDP hawk remains a fledgling compared to Tony Blair.) The doves historically have dominated the leadership with an approach that came to be known as the Yoshida Doctrine. Even Yasuhiro Nakasone, the one openly conservative prime minister (1982-87) before Shinzo Abe, toed the line when it mattered.

This all changed when Japan's expensive and deeply humiliating experience during the 1991 Gulf War pushed the LDP regime to seek a more aggressive role for Japan on issues of international peace and security. The nineties also brought a new urgency to more immediate national security concerns as North Korea locked horns with the international community over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, whose most obvious targets appeared to be Japan.

There are other factors, such as the rise of the Chinese military and the uncertainties surrounding it, driving the national security agenda. But the shaming of the Gulf War and the nuclear threat from North Korea pushed Japan's quest to become a "normal nation" into the mainstream of the national debate.

But the LDP doves are by no means an insignificant force. But party discipline is strong, as the Lower House members who were thrown out of the LDP in 2005 for voting against Post Office privatization can attest. If necessary, the majority should be able to impose its will.

Unfortunately for those who seek a major shift in the status quo, Komeito, coalition partner since 1999, is a constitutional dove. Disclaimers and some efforts notwithstanding, Komeito remains the political wing of the 8 million household-strong Buddhist movement, Sokagakkai. As such, it can rely on a rock-solid voting bloc that will by and large do its bidding, rain or shine. (Preferably rain, since its candidates benefit from low voter turnout.) But this also means that it must adhere to Sokagakkai's deeply pacifist sentiments based on the institutional memories of persecution during World War II. And Komeito cooperation is required, most obviously in the Upper House, where the LDP has not enjoyed a simple majority since 1989. The importance of Komeito goes beyond the sheer number of its Diet members, as Komeito support can be crucial in single seat elections (58 out of 242 in the Upper House, 300 out of 480 in the Lower House) because it can rely on its supporters form Sokagakkai to cast their votes for the LDP candidates. In other words, the LDP would lose seats if not for the cooperation of its junior coalition partner.

In practical terms, this means that the LDP cannot do anything that the Komeito does not. This places a limit on the things that the administration, however hawkish its leader may be, can do. It means making nice with the mainland (Komeito and Sokagakkai are especially tight with China) and upholding the Kono Statement on the comfort women issue. (Sokagakkai has its own legitimate claim as victim of the authoritarian wartime regime.) Komeito does seek "additional amendment", but with regards to the advance of human rights, not military projection.

What political upheavals can change this state of events? Many DPJ members are sympathetic to a more forceful security and defense profile for Japan. In fact, in many ways the diversity of the DPJ mirrors that of the LDP. Thus, a major realignment of the key political parties, which will inevitably drag in the mini-parties occupying various points on the political spectrum, could put a solid, ideologically more cohesive majority in power, which in turn could implement a political agenda that allows Japan to become, finally, a "normal nation."