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Japan’s big realignment in 2022

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A woman in a traditional costume makes her way at a shopping district in Tokyo, Japan, 15 November 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon).

In Brief

We have long been inured to think of the Japanese state and society as stable, to the point of being inert. The complacency of this view was unexpectedly shattered on 8 July with the assassination of Shinzo Abe, former prime minister and still then influential political powerbroker, in a hail of bullets on the streets of Nara.


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This year has been the year of the so-called ‘polycrisis’. War, economic and energy shocks, pandemic, environmental chaos — the sheer scale of the simultaneous upheavals which reverberated across the world has challenged the international system. Japan was no exception to these upheavals, with its own so-called ‘period of crisis’ (hijoji) in political, economic and national security affairs.

At the beginning of 2022, Japanese politics reflected the uncertainty of the post-Abe era. Despite hailing from the Cold War-era liberal Kochikai faction of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the Kishida government in practice and in leading personnel represented continuity and was in harmony with the Abe era. One of the most fascinating questions of Japanese parliamentary politics into 2022 was the presence of a number of former premiers in the parliament and their powerful voice over political party and national affairs.

In terms of policy, there has been no major departure or initiative under Kishida’s new government. The vague slogan ‘reformed capitalism’ which was seen as a rejection of Anglo-American style neoliberalism has ‘remained unrealised’, a slogan in search of a policy, as Aurelia George Mulgan writes in this week’s lead article, the first in our annual series of pieces reviewing the year’s events across the Asia Pacific.

The murder of ex-premier Abe ruptured this state of affairs, removing a key political figure from the LDP and the national political scene. For a brief period public support rallied behind Kishida, allowing him to secure electoral victories and provide his cabinet with the popularity which had eluded it during its first months in power. High expectations were dashed as revelations surfaced over the long-standing electoral and ideological relationship between the LDP and the Unification Church. The media’s willingness to broach previously taboo issues of postwar religious freedoms implicated figures all the way up to cabinet, including Abe’s own brother — now-ex defence minister Nobuo Kishi.

The revelations roiled the cabinet and intersected with the decision by Kishida to hold a state funeral for Abe. State funerals (kokuso) have proven to be deeply controversial across the transom of pre-war and post-1945 Japan, with widespread public anger over the cost and the appropriateness of the honour riving the Japanese body politic and delivering Kishida and his government approval ratings that dived towards 30 per cent. Despite the cabinet reshuffle in August following ministerial departures, Kishida has continued to hemorrhage electoral support.

As George Mulgan highlights in her review of the year’s political developments, the Kishida government’s problems have been made worse by dysfunction in the prime minister’s office. From the fractured relationship with Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno to issues of coordination with the Lower House of the Diet, to signs of disagreement with Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda over monetary policy, there is every indication of a government adrift.

The economic realm has offered little respite for a government which defined its major mission as overcoming the weaknesses of neoliberalism. A US$200 billion stimulus package to ease the impact of the slide of the yen and protect Japanese consumers from rising commodity prices failed to restore public confidence in the government. The value of the yen remains an important political problem for the ruling coalition.

Foreign affairs have not provided Kishida room to manoeuvre or to restore his government’s fortunes. Despite hailing from the traditionally more pro-China faction of the LDP, Kishida’s government is politically committed to the foreign policy of the Abe era.

Still, Kishida has notched up important successes in meetings with his counterparts in Seoul and Beijing. From the Japanese vantage point, the year has seen the strengthening of the Quad and a new political and strategic commitment to Taiwan as a cornerstone of security in Northeast Asia.

The Russian war in Ukraine has undone hope of a breakthrough in relations with Moscow, a cherished aim of former prime minister Abe. Yet despite the expanding sanctions regime, Japan has been reluctant to completely withdraw from its massive investments in oil pipelines Sakhalin 1 and 2 — a position supported by key business interests. Energy is emerging as one arena in which Japanese and Quad governments differ appreciably in their approach — the harmony of their interests has its limits.

On 16 December, the Kishida government unveiled a series of documents to underpin a ‘major shift in security policy’. The new National Security Strategy painted a grim picture of a region in the midst of the ‘most severe post-war security environment’ as power shifts in the Asia Pacific. Despite splits in the ruling coalition over how to fund the new security framework, divisions appear less a question of substance than form, reflecting a new consensus and approach to foreign and security policies across the highest echelons of government.

The documents outline a robust security posture: an increase in the defence budget to 6.5 trillion yen (US$47.5 billion) and a new political commitment to procure new full-spectrum capabilities, most notably counter-strike capabilities in the form of the introduction of Tomahawk missiles. The government also committed to the construction of submarines capable of launching extended range Type-12 missiles. All this would lift defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, or double its 1 per cent post-war cap.

While the time frame for the deployment of these new military capabilities is measured in decades — like the Australian acquisition of nuclear submarines under AUKUS — the Japanese government’s commitment to an expanded defence role is now being reinforced, with the discrepancy between political will and capabilities narrowing.

Japan appears in the midst of a major political and diplomatic realignment of its posture and capabilities. Kishida has inaugurated big changes which will outlive his unpopular government. For the time being, the changes under the new security documents, including counter-strike capabilities, are anchored in the Article 9 peace clause of Japan’s post-war constitution, which limits the use of force to situations where no other means are available to defend against attack. At the same time, Kishida’s changes leave the door open to once again redefining Article 9 through reinterpretation or formal constitutional revision.

The signs are that Japan is embarking on a substantive transformation, the implications of which will shape not just the nation, but affect the stability and security of the entire Asia Pacific region. But exactly how will likely have to be the work of a new government.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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