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Raising the bar on the military; Is Japan Ready?

Author: Eric Heginbotham
December 19, 2003
International Herald Tribune


The decades-long U.S. effort to encourage Japan to assume a greater military burden has finally met with major success. Incremental change, sometimes bordering on stasis, has given way to a rapid series of moves that have pushed the bounds of Japan's use of force.

Japanese naval ships are now providing logistical assistance to the U.S. fleet in the Indian Ocean. Earlier this month, the Japanese government approved the dispatch of support troops to Iraq. And there is considerable support within the bureaucracy and among conservative politicians for making the Japanese Defense Agency a full-blown ministry and amending the so-called peace constitution.

Unfortunately, there has been little accompanying discussion of the state of civil-military relations in Japan. If the military gains in strength, could it come to once again challenge Japan's democracy?

Domestic and foreign media have limited their discussion on this primarily to the question of whether recent moves have been driven by resurgent Japanese nationalism and militarism.

Japan specialists in the United States have almost universally answered the question with an emphatic "No." True, there is substantial evidence for the weakening of pacifist values over time and a growing acceptance of the military. But there is little if any evidence to suggest that the Japanese people are particularly interested in military affairs, much less a return to imperial glory. Even within the government, there is no talk of raising the defense budget beyond 1 percent of GDP, where it has hovered, plus or minus a tenth of a percent, since 1967.

Ishihara Shintaro, the nationalist beacon of the 1980's, is no longer a credible national force, and, more significantly, there are no prominent younger versions of him anywhere in the political system. No. Japanese society is neither nationalist nor militarist - at least not judged against contemporary Europe or America.

Unfortunately, however, this does not mean that there is no cause for concern about the larger question of civilian political control of the military. Japan's civil-military relations problem has more to do with the strength of the political system than with popular sentiment. Specifically, it derives from the weak position of political officials vis-à-$ vis the bureaucracy.

It is the same defect, in kind if not necessarily in degree, that led to Japan's disastrous 20th century wars of conquest. During the early 1920's, the military in Japan was less popular than it is today. A weak political system, however, allowed the Japanese military to manipulate events, and, ultimately, hijack the state.

After World War II, the military was hobbled by a variety of special restrictions, but the bureaucracy itself remained immensely powerful. Change has been painfully slow and the bureaucracy has lost few opportunities to counterattack.

When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's first foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, sought to impose her will on foreign policy, her subordinates conducted a guerrilla operation against her. They leaked information to the press in a successful effort to have her removed.

Freed of its current restrictions, the military would be a particularly potent domestic force. Its budget is several times that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it has more personnel than any other ministry or agency.

It is not sufficient to rely on the good will of a chastened Japanese military officer corps. Clearly, few if any Japanese officers today want to return Japan to its military-dominated past. But there is every reason to believe that military officers and civilians in the Defense Agency will push at the boundaries of civilian political control.

The political response will largely determine whether military challenges become more or less serious in the future. Ultimately, the question will be which progresses faster: the evolution of the Japanese political system, or the dismantling of restrictions on the military.

The time for taking stock of this question is now. While it may be too early for definitive answers, slow incremental change in Japanese military policy is arguably healthy for Japan and beneficial to the United States, but a rapid breakout may be in the interests of neither state.

The writer is a senior fellow of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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