Not made in China: Japan's home-grown national security obsession

Picture: Al Jazeera

Volume 1, no. 1, February 2013

Author: Amy Catalinac, ANU

On the 16th of December 2012 Japan held a House of Representatives election, which catapulted the LDP-Komei coalition back into government and Abe Shinzo back into the prime ministership. The election was notable not only because it exposed the degree of voter dissatisfaction with the incumbent DPJ-led government, but also because of the starring role played by national security in the campaign. Every major party contesting the election took a stance on national security and made efforts to publicise it through the media and their election manifestos.

The LDP’s stance was the most specific (and perhaps the most daring): issuing promises ranging from revising the ban on collective self-defense, to stationing troops on what Japan calls the Senkaku Islands (the disputed islands known as Diaoyu in China).

Individuals, too, prepared for the election by demonstrating their interest in national security: Kawamura Takashi, currently serving as Mayor of Nagoya, with statements about the Nanking massacre and comfort women; Hashimoto Toru, Mayor of Osaka and founder of the Japan Restoration Association (Nippon Ishin no Kai), with a plan to pursue joint management of what Japan calls the Takeshima Islands (known as Dokdo in Korea); Abe Shinzo with promises to rectify laws governing history textbooks; and Ishihara Shintaro (at the time the Governor of Tokyo) with a scheme to collect donations from the public for the purchase of three of the Senkaku islands. To the casual observer, Japan appeared almost obsessed with national security.

“Every major party contesting the election took a stance on national security and made efforts to publicise it through the media and their election manifestos.”

No sooner than the election was over, Japan watchers located the origins of this obsession in a ‘shift to the right’, brought on by a confluence of factors: China, North Korea, China, economic recession, and China. The problem with this conclusion is that there is little empirical evidence for such a shift. There is no evidence that the Japanese public care more about national security than they did in the past.

Most of the ‘security issues’ politicians are so focused on are in fact ruining Japan’s ability to meet the security threats it faces, not helping it. Even more problematically, quantitative analysis of the ideological positions adopted by candidates in their election manifestos in the four elections between 1996 and 2005 show that candidates from both the LDP and the DPJ have shifted to the left and become more dovish over time, not more hawkish. This begs the question: what can explain Japan’s national security obsession, if not a shift to the right?

In Pork to Policy: Electoral Reform and National Security in Japan, 1958-2009, I show that the focus on national security during the 2012 campaign is nothing new. LDP politicians started paying attention to national security in the 1996 election campaign, reversing a four-decade-old tradition of keeping it at arm’s length. After this came new study groups, task forces, and leagues within which politicians could discuss national security issues. After that came new commitments to the United States, new roles and capabilities for Japan’s Self Defence Forces, new articulations of security strategy, new institutions within which to formulate this strategy, and new efforts to correct the societal-level inputs of national security politicians felt were lacking. My book seeks to explain the turnaround in attention to national security issues by LDP politicians in 1996 and the flurry of security-related activity that followed.

“There is no evidence that the Japanese public care more about national security than they did in the past.”

The answer might appear to be a no-brainer. The increase in attention to security and the new security policies coincide almost perfectly with the rise of China and the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear threat. Looks, however, can be deceiving. I argue that China and North Korea alone are not sufficient to explain this new attention. If they were, we would have observed a spark of attention in 1994, when the first crisis with North Korea unfolded; in 1995, when China tested a nuclear weapon and launched a missile over the Taiwan Straits; and at numerous other points during the post-war period when Japan was faced with new security threats.

We did not. Instead, we observed LDP politicians turning a blind eye to the 1994 crisis, the 1995 crisis, and earlier events, such as the conclusion of the Cold War, the Soviet military build-up in Northeast Asia, and North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens. Further evidence that the threats posed by China and North Korea are not behind the new attention, is found in the fact that LDP politicians are not even focused on the new security threats. Rather, they are consumed with less-pressing security issues, such as whether or not the U.S. brought nuclear weapons into Japan during the Cold War, how the Second World War should be remembered in high school textbooks, and how Japan should ‘resolve’ the abduction issue.

Their sudden focus on the abduction issue, twenty five years after it occurred, is strong evidence that concern about Japan’s national security is not driving the new attention. If it was, they would be prioritising resolution of the nuclear and missile threat posed by the North, not spending time on the abduction issue.

“Under Japan’s old electoral system, it is extremely unlikely that such a transformation in security policy would have occurred, and Japan wouldn’t be paying attention to national security, not for all the guns in China.”

I argue that a shift in the electoral strategies of LDP politicians, brought about by electoral reform to the House of Representatives in 1994, provides the best explanation for this turnaround in attention and the flurry of security-related activity.

The first election held under the new system took place in 1996. I explain how the introduction of single member districts forced LDP politicians to abandon their electoral strategies of pork barrel promises for the district in favour of a new strategy of policies for the nation, one of which is national security policy. It is not because of increased concern regarding national security that they are focusing on national security after 1996, but because competition under the new rules requires them to take a stance on national-level policy issues.

In my 2011 Ph.D. dissertation, I applied a new tool for quantitative text analysis, latent Dirichlet allocation, to 7,497 candidate election manifestos used in elections to the House of Representatives from 1986 to 2009, which I collected and digitalised during fifteen months of fieldwork in Japan. This tool allowed me to statistically detect the change in electoral strategy. Whereas the average LDP candidate’s strategy had been two-thirds pork for the district and one-third policy for the nation under the old system, this ratio is reversed under the new. The average LDP candidate had previously devoted just 0.1% of his/her manifesto to national security under the old system, but now devotes 6.6%.

My book adds three other new data sets, a series of mini case studies, the results of more than one hundred interviews conducted with politicians, bureaucrats, and other political actors in Japan, and my experiences in the campaign cars of four politicians during the 2009 election campaign to trace out how this change in electoral strategy reduced the costs of making national security policy, which in turn facilitated the transformation in Japan’s security policy that occurred after 1996.

The takeaway is that the electoral rules of the game matter tremendously. Under Japan’s old electoral system, it is extremely unlikely that such a transformation in security policy would have occurred, and Japan wouldn’t be paying attention to national security, not for all the guns in China.

About the author

Dr Amy Catalinac is a Research Fellow in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Amy received her PhD from the Department of Government at Harvard University in 2011 and her BA with First Class Honours in Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington in 2003. Previously she was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, a Research Student at the University of Tokyo, and an intern for the Liberal Democratic Party. She is currently writing a book manuscript, entitled Pork to Policy: Electoral Reform and National Security in Japan, 1958-2009.

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