Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.12.25

Remilitarization? No, Abe is in the Middle Ground

JBPress on December 20, 2013

Conservative newspapers in Tokyo hail Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for finally revising his country's post-1945 defense policy. Liberal editorials, on the other hand, criticize Mr. Abe's departure from Japan's traditional "purely defensive" military posture. Foreign observers may wonder which one is the genuine Shinzo Abe. The reality, however, is that he is neither of the above.

On December 17, the Abe administration approved three important documents: the long-awaited National Security Strategy, the newly-revised National Defense Program Guidelines and a new version of the Mid-Term Defense Procurement Plan. In a nutshell, Japan will increase defense spending by 5% over the next 5 years in line with the massive power shift ongoing in East Asia.

Japan's media are clearly divided over this decision. Among the 6 major daily newspapers in Greater Tokyo, for example, two are in favor of Mr. Abe, three are against him and the last one is neutral and reluctant to take sides. This, however, may not reflect the real voices of the silent majority Japanese. Here are the reasons why.

One daily, the Yomiuri, advocates in its editorial that Japan should construct a system to defend herself to the end. The conservative paper commends Mr. Abe's "proactive pacifism" and approves of his initiative to promote "patriotism."

The Sankei, another conservative media, while highly praising Mr. Abe's "proactive pacifism" as a sea change in Japan's post-World War II defense policy, deplores that Mr. Abe stops short of changing the interpretation of the constitution to exercise the right to collective self-defense.

The Asahi, on the contrary, expresses concern about Mr. Abe's tilt towards "military measures" and his shift from a "purely defensive posture" to "use of force." This liberal paper is sharply critical, saying that Mr. Abe's negligence of Japan's pacifism since 1945 will only send a hostile message to neighboring countries.

The Asahi continues to claim that China's military buildup should be addressed by diplomacy and not by excessive patriotism and nationalism. Similar views are voiced in the editorials of the Mainichi and Tokyo newspapers which also express concern about Japan's transition from a "moderate" to a "joint and mobile" defense architecture.

Finally, the Nikkei only says that ground-maritime-air joint coordination is essential for the transformation of the Self-Defense Forces, while calling for efficient use of the limited defense budget. This economic daily's editorial sounds neutral, seemingly trying to avoid getting too involved in the ideological debate over Japan's military posture.

So, which voice do you think represents the silent majority of the Japanese? It isn't hard to guess. For example, is Mr. Abe's "proactive pacifism" militarism? Hardly. A few per cent increase in Japan's defense budget only compensates for increasing labor costs and the decline in the weaker Yen. No country can catch up with China's military spending and its double-digit annual increases.

In that case, are there majority voices in Tokyo that fully support the acquisition of the capability to strike enemy bases overseas? What about the right to collective self-defense in case a Japanese ally is under attack? The answers are unclear, at least for the time being. Japan has been a democracy for the last nearly 70 years. When it comes to consensus-building, her people are much more mature than those in developing nations.

There is a generational component as well. In the 1960s and 70s the phenomena of radical leftist student movements was seen on many college campuses in Japan, Europe and the United States. For those students, Marxism was a lullaby and Maoism a pastime. In those years in Japan, Marxism-Leninism and left wing radicalism was fashionable for the baby-boomers.

Shinzo Abe, unfortunately, is not a baby-boomer. He is junior to the radical student movement generations. His generation and the ones following it have a strong doubt, suspicion and even distaste vis-à-vis their radical left-wing big brothers. Mr. Abe's generation, including myself, is the first political apathetic generation.

Younger generations have no illusion about the left wing's legacy in Japan and they just want to move the political center of gravity back to the center. Those Japanese baby-boomers with excessive liberal and leftist orientations are now retiring and rapidly becoming a "vocal minority" in 21st century Japan.

Make no mistake. Japan's silent majority do know where they are headed. They are aware that Mr. Abe's policy shift is a healthy and natural response to China's rise, which has been increasingly assertive both at sea and in the air. An alliance helps those who help themselves and the Japan-U.S. alliance is no exception to the rule.