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Is Abe threatening Japan’s democracy?

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In Brief

After his political resurrection in December 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has campaigned on the promise to ‘take Japan back’ from the institutional constraints of the country’s ‘post-war regime’.

With his pledge of (re)establishing a ‘strong nation’, Abe has pushed hard for revising Japan’s national security institutions and promoted a new strategy of ‘proactive pacifism


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which seeks to facilitate Japan’s role in international peacekeeping operations. In his recent redesigning of Japan’s security institutions, Abe has introduced two new institutions for security and intelligence policy coordination. Indicating a new strategy towards facilitating collective self-defence, which departs from an exclusive focus on constitutional reform, Japan’s newly evolving security architecture is essentially designed to further smoothen cooperation within the US–Japan alliance.

On 26 November the administration rammed through the Diet’s lower house a highly contested state secrecy bill, which aims to tighten the government’s control of information sensitive to state legislation. The bill provides the Japanese government with the authority to designate information across a broad array of policy fields, including terrorism and diplomacy, as ‘special state secrets’.

Under the new law state officials and journalists who disclose sensitive information declared secret by the state face prison sentences of up to 10 years. Recent incidents, like the release of video material by Japan Coast Guard personnel showing a Chinese fishing boat colliding with two Japanese patrol vessels in 2010 near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, would be restricted by the law.

Though the bill passed through the upper house on 6 December, the definition of ‘state secret’ remains vague, as does the question of an independent political authority evaluating the process of designating information as secret.

In a recent statement before parliament, Abe has suggested that a control body will be implemented within the Cabinet Office, thus placing the process of information control directly under his authority. With this move, Abe has triggered an avalanche of public criticism, especially among Japan’s mass media, as journalists fear the state will use the new legislation to actively intervene in media activities.

As fear grows that Abe’s efforts toward securing Japan will result in diminishing Japan’s post-war democracy, writers, filmmakers and academics are uniting in opposition joining the broader public protests. While opposition to the bill is increasing, Liberal Democratic Party General Secretary Shigeru Ishiba has even compared the protesters to terrorists. The late public reaction to the bill, however, will likely lose momentum, without seriously threatening the prime minister’s high support ratings.

As a second pillar of Abe’s blueprint for a strong Japan, the Diet passed on 27 November legislation that has introduced a fully institutionalised National Security Council (NSC), replacing the Security Council established in 1986. The new intelligence unit emulates US security architecture and is mainly established for the purpose of overcoming the host of institutional barriers across Japan’s defence and security bureaucracy to optimise intelligence gathering and analysis.

As a result, these measures will accelerate the process of decision-making at the Kantei (the prime minister’s office) level. Moreover, the NSC is designed to facilitate security cooperation with Tokyo’s counterparts in Washington. The body is led by former foreign ministry official and close Abe foreign policy adviser Shotaro Yachi, and will start its operations as early as this month. Thus, while the NSC is designed to further strengthen the Kantei’s role in defence and security policy it must be considered a critical move in Abe’s push for increasing Japan’s role in regional security affairs. In fact, the new intelligence body was frequently justified with specific reference to Japan’s changing regional security environment requiring a strengthening of central command capabilities.

Sino-Japanese disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and Beijing’s assertive course in managing its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas have equipped Abe with forceful arguments to counterbalance public claims of a Japan embarking on a pathway towards dysfunctional democracy. Thus, Beijing’s new assertiveness undermines protest against Abe’s alleged revisionist course while enabling Japanese strategists to redirect the debate towards Japan’s new security threats.

Most importantly, however, in advancing Japan’s new security institutions, Northeast Asia’s current security crisis has helped Japan to consolidate the main pillar of its security architecture: the US–Japan alliance. While the ties between Tokyo and Washington underwent a period of turmoil during the three years of Democratic Party of Japan government, China’s recent unilateral announcement of an ‘air defence identification zone’ has prompted US intervention to address China’s new ambitions in the region. During his most recent visit to Tokyo, US Vice-President Joe Biden expressed Washington’s opposition to Beijing’s attempt to change the region’s status quo.

Yet another layer to Japan’s newly evolving security architecture will be added in the course of Tokyo’s revision of the national defence guidelines set for completion at the end of 2014. The guidelines specifically address the ‘rising threats’ in Northeast Asia exemplified by North Korean missile and nuclear tests and tensions with China. As such, the revised guidelines will focus on the enhancement of Japan’s surveillance capabilities and likely commission amphibious forces in order to protect remote islands. Moreover, in recent ‘2+2’ talks between Japan and the US, Washington announced the deployment of Global Hawk drones as well as P-8 maritime patrol aircraft to Japan. As East Asia’s security crisis continues, Abe will not have to look far for arguments to justify his recalibration of Japan’s national security institutions.

Sebastian Maslow is Assistant Professor for Japanese politics at the University of Heidelberg’s Centre for East Asian Studies.

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