The Rush to Smear Japan’s Conservatives

by Michael Auslin

Ah, the horror of a conservative party actually winning a national election. While such may be a dim memory here in America, in Japan the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) just won a crushing victory over the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. Turnabout is fair play, since the DPJ destroyed the LDP back in 2009 to end the party’s half-century rule of Japan. Alas, the dysfunctional DPJ, which went through three prime ministers in as many years, lasted less than a tenth of the LDP’s time in office. They also lost over 75 percent of their seats yesterday, while the conservatives won a supermajority that will allow them to override the Upper Chamber on key legislation such as the budget.

However, the specter of conservatives returning to power in Japan has brought out predictable warnings of doom from anguished Western observers. Several weeks ago, I wrote about a Businessweek column that was an instruction manual for how Japan should kowtow to China.

Now, a DePaul University professor, Kathryn Ibata-Arens, sounds the tocsin over an as-yet-unrealized “militaristic coalition,” which of course can be summed up by its supposed support for the Rising Sun flag. Whereas the DPJ, in Ibata-Arens’s view, has a “forward-looking viewpoint,” the LDP is separated only by inches from the more strident nationalism of former mayor Shintaro Ishihara (co-author of the decades-old The Japan That Can Say No), and thus the two are all-but-certain to form a new hardline front in Japanese politics. We are all at risk (even the U.S.), she claims, since “Japan could be moving toward a nationalist, militarized future, if the right-wing candidate Shintaro Ishihara and his ilk have their way.” Such an oblique attack sure seems to assume a lot that doesn’t seem much in evidence right now.

Todd Crowell, a long-time Asia hand, however, takes aim directly at the LDP. He claims the LDP platform is “tailor-made” for the “hawish” views of Japan’s next leader, Shinzo Abe (pronounced “Ah-bay”). This includes revising the restriction on collective self-defense and renaming the Self-Defense Forces the National Defense Force. Clearly, such a change in nomenclature is a prelude to a more aggressive policy.

Of course, there are a few quibbles one might make with such analyses. First is that, while hard-liner Ishihara’s new party did gain about 50 seats in the election, its support dropped dramatically as more people got acquainted with it. Ibata-Arens herself acknowledges that the right-wing nationalists won’t get a majority anytime soon, but she fails to note that Japan remains an overwhelmingly pacifist society, with deep distrust of any more assertive defense policy. Secondly, pace Ibata-Arens, Japan is already “remilitarized,” with one of the world’s best-funded and most modern militaries. True, it doesn’t have nuclear weapons, as Ishihara has mused about, but no serious observer believes Tokyo is remotely close to adopting that position, short of an American military collapse in Asia. Third, and most important, the DPJ has continued and deepened a Japanese move to the right (if it can be categorized as such), by deciding to buy the F-35 stealth fighter, purchasing two large helicopter carriers, continuing ballistic missile research with the U.S., and revising an old ban on arms exports. It also released a new security strategy that highlighted China’s growing threat to Japan’s territorial possessions. And, as Ibata-Arens points out, it was the DPJ government that ignited the current crisis with China by nationalizing some of the disputed Senkaku Islands — having failed to find a less provocative way to prevent then-Tokyo mayor Ishihara from buying them himself.

Yet little of this says anything about Japan’s next leader, Shinzo Abe. Abe had a failed term as premier from 2006–07, and I’ve already demonstrated doubts about his ability to govern. But I worry not because he’s a crypto-fascist, or even a rabid nationalist, but because he hasn’t come up with a convincing economic-reform plan, which is what Japan’s voters really care about. He also has some terrible ideas, such as refusing to acknowledge Japan’s war guilt over comfort women. No, Abe may be a hawk, but by that definition so is the current DPJ prime minister, who is avowedly a China-skeptic and has sent Japanese Coast Guard and Air Self-Defense Force planes regularly to push back the Chinese from the area around the Senkakus. Most important, Japan’s vote on Sunday almost certainly was a vote against the failings of the DPJ, as opposed to a ringing endorsement of the LDP. A suddenly more nationalist Japanese electorate is hard to discern, which is something that Abe himself publicly admitted after his victory.

Some might say that Japan needs to toughen up, spend more than 1 percent of GDP on its military, and revise limitations on working with partners (known as collective self-defense) in light of China’s growing power and assertiveness and North Korea’s new ability to successfully launch long-range ballistic missiles. Far from plunging Asia into war, a stronger Japan is far more likely to work with its American ally to preserve stability and the status quo in Asia. But for some Western commentators, it seems any conservative is a bad conservative, even when they’re not the ones causing the problems.

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