Security legislation points to a bigger problem

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Recently, I had dinner with an old friend visiting Washington from Japan.

In the course of our conversation, we got to the subject of Japan’s security legislation. We both knew that we stood on the opposite side of the debate — he was against the bill and I was for it.

What he said in that conversation, though, got my attention. “I have been reading what you are writing about the bills,” he said. “Having read your commentary, I do see why this legislation may be necessary and important for Japan. But I have not heard any of the politicians discuss it in that way. I am opposed to the bills as long as those Diet members cannot better explain the rationale for them.”

After much commotion, the security legislation was approved in the wee hours on Sept. 19. The public remains uncertain of what the bills actually do, which makes them deeply apprehensive. The opinion polls taken by various Japanese media prior to the bills’ passage all illustrated that, while the public’s view toward the legislation itself was divided, an overwhelming majority — close to 80 percent — thought the debate in the Diet was insufficient.

What does this mean?

It means, first and foremost, that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has failed to present a convincing case to the public as to why these laws are necessary. Four months and about 200 hours later, the ruling coalition was unable to communicate to the public how these laws benefit Japan and more importantly, why these changes cannot wait. Their fallback position of referring to a contingency on the Korean Peninsula may have been helpful in making the public see why the legislation is necessary, but it did not effectively address the question of why the government feels so strongly about passing the bill now.

The opposition has failed just as badly as the ruling coalition. In particular, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) did a terrible job as the biggest opposition party that once rejected the Socialists’ approach of just saying no to whatever is proposed by the government. It was bad enough that the DPJ sided with the Socialists and Communists, who labeled the bills as “war legislation.” Worse, instead of articulating their vision of an alternative Japanese security policy that does not require the proposed legislation but still allows Japan to participate responsibly in efforts to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific and beyond, they resorted to the anachronistic tactics of asking extremely legalistic, nit-picking questions on
the proposed bill, narrowing the scope of the debate. By the time they began to build a blockade to prevent the upper house special committee from convening and wrestled down LDP members to block the committee vote (the spectacle that surprised some in the United States as rather unusual for the politicians from a “peaceful” nation), they began to look like the Socialists who tried to block the consumption tax bill in 1988 and the Peacekeeping Operation cooperation bill in 1992 by infamous “cow walk” tactics.

Most importantly — and potentially most problematic — these poll numbers may point to an issue that is much larger than the security legislation. Simply put, they may suggest the general lack of confidence among the Japanese public in their political leaders’ judgment.

There has been a strange contradiction in Japan’s policy to date in that the Self-Defense Forces, although looking and acting like a professional military organization, can and should only be sent to “safe” places even while civilians have lost their lives while serving overseas. Inspector Haruyuki Takata (a policeman who was killed while serving in the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia), Mr. Atsuhito Nakata (a U.N. volunteer killed in Cambodia) and Ambassador Katsuhiko Oku (killed in Iraq) to name a few — their deaths are all reminders to the people of Japan that Japan’s participation in multilateral efforts for international peace holds inherent risk.

So when it comes to the security legislation, the Japanese public wants to know why it is needed now. They need to know the risks of passing the legislation for the SDF. They need to know whether there may be any diplomatic repercussions for Japan from passing the security legislation, or whether it will put its civilians such as aid workers in conflict environments at greater risk.

They need to hear why the Abe government, despite such risks, still believes that the bills will benefit Japan’s national security and what they are ready to do to mitigate such risk. Above all, they need to hear why the government wants to enact this legislation despite such risk. In short, the public will want the politicians to tell it like it is so that they can feel assured that they are fully informed.

So far, however, all the Japanese public has seen in the Diet debate is bickering over what is legal and what is not without any context. Nobody, including Prime Minister Abe, has stood up and made the case as to why Japan needs the proposed security legislation now despite the potential risk. When the public feels that the politicians are avoiding an honest debate about the proposed security bill, how can they have confidence in those elected officials to make difficult decisions that may cost lives?

At the end of the day, the proposed bill was passed — the opposition was simply outnumbered. However, the public’s lack of confidence in their elected officials will linger. As the Japanese lawmakers look beyond the security legislation, a more unpopular legislative agenda awaits them. Japanese elected officials need to begin to restore public confidence in politics as they move forward. Now that the security bill has passed, they can start doing that by beginning to talk more candidly about why Japan needed the changes even though potential security risk increases.

This piece originally appeared in The Japan News

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