A realistic approach to issues in Japan

Despite concerns that PM Abe is taking Japan 'to the right', he has acted more like a realist on territorial disputes with Tokyo's neighbours

SINCE Mr Shinzo Abe was elected Prime Minister in December, observers both in Japan and overseas have predicted that he will take the country "to the right". Will he? My short answer is yes and no. Here is what I mean.

Mr Abe is trying to break away from some traditions of a post- war "pacifist" Japan. He seeks to revise the Constitution drafted by American occupiers after Japan was defeated in the Pacific War. He likes to put a new name, the "National Defence Force", to Japan's technically non-military defence organisation - the Self-Defence Force (SDF), and give it a full-fledged military status.

He also wishes to make it possible for Japan to start exercising the "right of collective self-defence", which is prohibited under the Constitution.

However, true right-wing hardliners would be disappointed to learn what these changes might mean in practice.

First, even if Mr Abe successfully revised the Constitution, it would simply say that Japan could now officially possess a military force for national defence. It would be an important departure from the "pacifist" Constitution that prohibits Japan from possessing an army, navy and air force, which is the whole reason why the government must keep (mis-)characterising the SDF as a non-military organisation.

Symbolism aside, all this would do is simply to make it possible for Japan to stop lying about the nature of its armed forces and say it actually possesses a military force.

Second, Mr Abe can change the name of the SDF. But, regardless of the name, the SDF is in reality already a full-fledged military force with 240,000 men and women under arms and with the sixth-largest defence expenditure in the world. The new name might slightly enhance servicemen's morale, but it will not significantly improve defence capabilities.

Certainly, Mr Abe has decided to increase the defence budget by 120 billion yen (S$1.64 billion) or 2.6 per cent for FY2013.

But it will not be enough to fill the growing gap between Japan and its rival China, whose defence expenditure has grown by 170 per cent in the past decade while Japan's has declined by 2.5 per cent.

Given the dire fiscal difficulties, any major defence budget increase would break the Japanese economy before it breaks China militarily.

Finally, Mr Abe hopes to enable Japan to take collective self-defence action in case its allies and friends requested it. But he would be willing to do so only in four specific scenarios.

First, he would be willing to make it possible for Japan to shoot down ballistic missiles that, say, North Korea launched against the United States.

Second, he would be willing to make it possible for Japan to protect US naval vessels if they are attacked at sea.

Third, he would be willing to make it possible for Japan to protect friendly foreign troops in multinational peacekeeping missions in case they come under fire.

Fourth, he would be willing to make it possible for Japan to provide logistic support to friendly foreign troops engaged in combat operations, similarly in multinational peacekeeping missions.

A decision to undertake these missions might be a significant step for the "pacifist" Japan. But these are relatively low-key, defensive missions that Japan should have undertaken years ago both as a US ally and as a responsible member of the international community.

So yes, Mr Abe's Japan is moving rightwards away from "pacifist" isolationism to take up minimum necessary international security responsibilities. But no, Japan is by no means leaning to the "right", if being "right" on defence matters means active interventionism.

Japan has long enjoyed the luxury of not having to put its men and women in harm's way, and has blamed the US-drafted "pacifist" Constitution for it. A majority of Japanese citizens including members of the SDF (for a good reason) will remain extremely reluctant to have their armed forces sent to war zones.

So far, Mr Abe has acted like a realist on territory issues, too. Before the December poll, his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had promised to organise an official ceremony to reiterate Japanese sovereignty over the Takeshima islands (known by the South Koreans as the Dokdo islands). However, Mr Abe decided to cancel the plan "for the sake of improving relationship between Japan and South Korea", five days after Ms Park Geun Hye was elected president of South Korea.

The same applied to the case of Senkaku (named Diaoyu by the Chinese). Before the election, the LDP had suggested an option to station government officials on the disputed islands to consolidate Japan's sovereignty over the islands. Again, Mr Abe decided against that option, and expressed his desire to bring the Sino-Japanese relationship back to one of "strategic partnership" instead.

But two potentially thorny issues remain for Mr Abe. One is his possible visit to the Yasukuni shrine, where high-profile war criminals are enshrined together with the more innocent Japanese war dead. Mr Abe has not clarified his position on this issue yet, but he has expressed "deep regret" about his decision not to visit Yasukuni while he was prime minister before. If he visits the shrine, both South Korea and China would respond strongly.

The other issue is Mr Abe's possible decision to revise the interpretation of how the so-called Korean comfort women were recruited during the war. Mr Abe has expressed his intention to "clear up the misunderstanding" that the Japanese authorities were directly involved in recruiting them.

However, regardless of whether Mr Abe's contention is correct or not, his attempt to reinterpret history would give a strong impression that Japan is trying to justify its war atrocities, and significantly undermine the ties between Japan and South Korea.

So far, Mr Abe has proved to be more realist than nationalist, and most Japanese citizens welcome this. However, deviating too much from what he had said before he became prime minister might undermine his position over time. We will find out whether he is a true realist or not in the months and maybe years to come.

The writer is an associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, where he is director of the security and international studies programme. He is also the author of North Korea's Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008.

By Invitation features expert views from opinion leaders in the region and Singapore.