Is Japan's Prime Minister the Next Putin?

02/27/2015 08:30 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015
KAZUHIRO NOGI via Getty Images

In the ads in the back of old comic books, a skinny little kid is hanging out at the beach when a bully comes along and kicks sand in his face.

The little kid, who weighed 97 pounds at the time, was Angelo Siciliano. He hightailed it to the gym, where he worked out until he turned himself into someone no bully would ever think of attacking. In addition to getting a new job as the strongman at the circus, Siciliano changed his name to Charles Atlas and began promoting his training regimen to other skinny kids.

The Japanese government would like us to believe that it was hanging out on the beach, minding its own business, when it too got a mouthful of sand kicked into its face. And now Tokyo is bulking up accordingly.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bills his more assertive military policy as an entirely defensive response to a world of bullies. During the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, for instance, China played the role of sandkicker. Before that, it was North Korea. Now, many Japanese refer to the Islamic State's (ISIS) execution of two Japanese journalists as the country's "9-11 moment," the justification for shredding the "peace constitution" that has presumably prevented the country from becoming as manly as other world powers.

Given that Japan's army is still called the Self-Defense Forces, it makes sense for Abe to portray the effort to create a "normal" foreign policy as a response to the aggression of others. But it's not as simple as the Abe government would like us to believe.

Abe is the front man for a Japanese political faction that wants to purge the country of its lingering pacifism so as to reorder East Asia with a militarily powerful Japan at its center. He can't make this change, however, without U.S. support, which according to the quid pro quos of geopolitics, requires Tokyo to facilitate the upgrade of the Pentagon's footprint on Okinawa over the wishes of the island's inhabitants.

It's one thing to gain Washington's approval. It's quite another to overcome both the bitter feelings of other East Asians and the genuine remorse of so many Japanese themselves over the horrors that Tokyo inflicted on the region in the first half of the 20th century.

To get around this problem, Abe has to engage in a complicated PR campaign. That's why he is carefully using a series of "shocks" -- from North Korean missile launches and Chinese naval maneuvers to events far away in the Middle East -- as the justification for the radical transformation of Japan's behavior and appearance.

Abe's Agenda

This is Shinzo Abe's second shot at the prime minister spot, and he's eager to push through his agenda this time around. He has presented himself as a palatable nationalist, one who can restore pride in Japan without discomfiting allies like the United States, partners like South Korea, and competitors like China.

But the agenda of Abe and his even more nationalist allies is actually quite radical.

In his first round as prime minister, he pushed schools to teach patriotism, upgraded the defense agency to a ministry, and laid the groundwork for ridding the constitution of the section -- Article 9 -- that prohibits the country from making war. He also wanted to create a National Security Council and a more powerful intelligence agency. These were not modest ambitions, particularly for a politician who couldn't seem to prevent his administration from descending into one scandal after another. Abe's popularity plummeted, and he lasted only one year in office.

Shortly after his resignation, Japan announced that it would withdraw its naval vessels from the Indian Ocean, where they were providing fuel to the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan was gaining strength, and it would ultimately put a more peaceable prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, into office. Japan, it seemed, was increasingly uncomfortable with the nationalist alternative that Abe and others were offering. But Hatoyama himself lasted less than a year -- in large part because of U.S. pushback against his unorthodox foreign policy positions -- and the conservatives plotted their return to power.

In his second time around, Abe is taking full advantage of political opportunities to advance the agenda that was thwarted in 2006. For instance, he visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which houses the spirits of the war dead, including war criminals. The visit sends a signal to outsiders that Japan doesn't really care about the sensibilities of neighboring governments and a message to Japanese that this prime minister will push his constitutional agenda forward regardless of the domestic obstacles. Less publicized was his participation in an important Shinto ritual that happens every 20 years -- the rebuilding of the Ise Shrine -- that effectively blurred the distinction between religion and state.

But his real focus has been on the military. Japanese governments have long employed "salami tactics" to get around constitutional prohibitions. Efforts by earlier administrations included lifting a ban on arms exports and another on participating in military operations like the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts (albeit in a non-combat role). Last July, Abe issued a cabinet decision -- the Japanese equivalent of a presidential order -- that committed Japan to collective self-defense, which means that Tokyo can fight on behalf of allies even if Japan itself is not under attack.

None of these changes means anything, however, if Japan doesn't have the military strength to back them up. And in this regard, Tokyo was far from a 97-pound weakling when Abe came to power. After routinely being among the top five military spenders in the world, Japan has built up one of the most powerful fighting forces in the world.

But Abe wasn't content with the informal rule that Japan would restrict its military spending to 1 percent of GDP. He breached that limit with his first budget in 2013. And last January, the Japanese government approved a record military budget of approximately $42 billion, a 2.8-percent increase over last year's figure. The money will go to a number of high-tech items that could very easily serve offensive functions, such as stealth fighters and amphibious vehicles.

But the Holy Grail for Abe remains the constitutional revision. As Kristin Surak writes for The Diplomat, the Abe document would not just remove Article 9 to create a "normal" army: It "would emphasize the importance of maintaining public order over protecting individual rights, such as free speech. Eroding the position of the individual yet further, the family would replace the person as the basic unit of society."

Like Viktor Orban in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia, Shinzo Abe aims for nothing short of complete regime change. He wants to transform Japan into an "illiberal state."

Overpowering Okinawa

Just how illiberal the Japanese state can become is best illustrated in Tokyo's treatment of Okinawa.

For nearly two decades, the Pentagon has been eager to close the Futenma Marine Air Force and build a replacement facility elsewhere on the island. At least three-quarters of the islanders oppose this new base (which is technically a massive expansion of an existing facility). Leaders at every political level in Okinawa -- from the governor down to the mayor of the town where the new facility is planned -- oppose the plan.

Heedless of Okinawan opinion, the authorities in Tokyo have begun the preparations for construction. Okinawa's new governor Takeshi Onaga, elected on an anti-base platform, has ordered this pre-construction to stop because of coral damage.

You might expect that to be the end of discussion -- Onaga is, after all, the top official on the island. But the Abe government has shown its absolute disdain for democracy by refusing to even meet with the governor. In February, he tried for the third time, but both Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said they were too busy for a meeting. At least Abe is consistent. If he's going to ignore the wishes of the vast majority of Okinawans, he should ignore the governor as well.

Okinawans continue to use their bodies to obstruct the construction project. They've maintained a protest against this project for an astounding 18 years. They're even kayaking into the construction area to block the surveying. "Even though the kayakers are out numbered and out powered, still they constitute a major obstruction: so much energy is spent trying to keep them out that it's hard to get much work done," writes Douglas Loomis, a longtime democracy activist living in Okinawa.

Dilemma for Obama

The United States has long wanted Japan to shoulder more of the financial burdens of the alliance and also break out of its own constitutional restraints to support U.S. military operations around the world.

At the same time, successive administrations in Washington have been irritated that its chief allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, don't get along better -- and that Tokyo hasn't, like Germany, atoned for its past conduct in a way that its neighbors find sufficient.

In other words, the United States has wanted all the putative benefits of Japanese militarism and none of the very real consequences.

As Michael Auslin has written, "There are those in the administration who are uncomfortable with Abe's reading of the past and his future ambitions. They are concerned about what role a more independent Japan might carve out in the region. Ideologically, the Obama administration was undoubtedly closer to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) when they were in power. But U.S.-Japan relations were worse under DPJ leadership because it upended the realignment process, which raised questions about the future of the alliance."

"Upended the realignment process" is another way of saying that Hatoyama and the DPJ opposed the new base construction and actually wanted to see the United States shrink its military footprint in Japan. The Obama administration was not willing to forgo its own military ambitions in Asia -- the much-vaunted "Pacific pivot" -- so the only alternative was to encourage Japan in its own Charles Atlas fantasies.

It's not too late for the Obama administration to see the folly of its bedfellows. The Abe agenda is anti-democratic and profoundly destabilizing for the region. Japan's current constitution is not simply a check on the country's militarism. It is also a constraint on Abe's will to power domestically. The Okinawans, among others, are standing up to Abe. As a first step to ensure the peace and stability of East Asia, the United States should honor their democratically expressed desires and cancel the new base construction on their island.

Crossposted with Foreign Policy In Focus