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Japan’s General Election Could Put the Brakes on Its Government’s Anti-China War Drive

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has chosen a new leader to boost its chances of retaining power in this month’s election. But the LDP is still fully committed to the militarization of Japanese foreign policy as part of Washington’s anti-China alliance.

Kishida Fumio, the newly elected leader of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party and the country’s current prime minister. (切干大根 / Wikimedia Commons)

In September 2020, I wrote for Jacobin about the prospects of Suga Yoshihide’s newly minted government as he succeeded Abe Shinzō as Japan’s prime minister. I expected little change, as the old regime was still firmly in control of the levers of state.

Now Suga is bowing out, and the year that has passed simply confirms that judgment. Chosen as party president by the one million members of the Japanese conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Kishida Fumio has now replaced Suga as prime minister–designate.

Since the LDP, with its ally, the neo-Buddhist Komeito, holds a parliamentary majority in the Japan’s National Diet, this means that the LDP membership — roughly one in 100 of the Japanese people — have also chosen a new prime minister, who then almost immediately called a general election. In that election, now scheduled for October 31, the LDP can expect to do well. It always does.

The party may only, according to a poll conducted in May this year, enjoy the support of 32.2 percent of eligible voters. But that should suffice because the LDP machine is a mighty force honed by more than half a century of success, and because nearly half the population will not vote. The tiny minority of LDP party members will thus be settling the country’s course for the next several years, perhaps longer.

Kishida, a former foreign minister and defense minister and a core figure in Abe Shinzō’s governments from 2012, is unlikely to chart any new course or prove a popular choice. Opinion polls in the weeks before the election showed him to be much less popular with the Japanese public than Kono Taro, the favorite. Kono, an articulate figure on social media platforms, fluent in English and a graduate of Georgetown University, suffered a narrow defeat. The anti-LDP forces may thus be in a better position to oust it from government, even if the odds remain stacked against them.

The LDP State

Will Japan’s long period of virtual one-party government, from its inception in 1955 to today, ever come to an end? The Japanese state is built on foundations laid down by the San Francisco Treaty of 1951, which ended the Allied occupation. Active interventions by US agencies, especially the CIA, set up and managed the apparatus of long-term US control over subsequent years.

Japan’s “Self-Defense Forces” (SDF), created in 1954, has grown to become one of the world’s most powerful militaries, ranking fifth or perhaps even fourth in the global hierarchy. The relationship between a US military protector and a demilitarized Japan that was established in San Francisco has steadily transformed into a mutual alliance, with Japan’s military might boosted by and merged with US-led treaty forces. The official interpretation of “Self-Defense” has grown ever looser, especially under the Abe and Suga governments of the past decade.

For decades, Washington has been urging a process of “normalization” upon Japan. Under Abe, the Japanese government responded with a new constitutional interpretation in 2014, allowing the country to mobilize when required for purposes of collective self-defense (in other words, when summoned by the United States). This amounted to an emptying out of the constitution, overcoming the impediment, as Japanese and US planners have long seen it, of the pacifist Article 9 and turning Japan into an “ordinary” country — a military superpower willing and able to join future “coalitions of the willing.”

In 2015, the Abe government adopted a package of security bills in accordance with this new interpretation. Overwhelmingly, constitutional scholars — including three eminent specialists who were summoned to testify before the Diet — declared this legislation to be unconstitutional,. However, the bills now define the way that Japan’s military forces might behave in future conflict situations.

Under Donald Trump and now Joe Biden, the United States has called for Japan to become a full US partner and linchpin in the four-sided Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) alliance — the United States, Japan, India, and Australia — that is intended to contain and confront China. Such legislative changes advance the transformation of Japan from a civil democracy to a national security state. In effect, the 247,000-strong Japanese SDF is an extension of the US military — trained, organized, and paid for by Japan, but under US direction and primarily serving US purposes. It is unthinkable that Japanese forces would ever act independently of Washington.

For Japan, the alliance constitutes the highest level of national policy. Under its auspices, the Abe and Suga governments set about organizing war exercises, base construction, and the purchase of US aircraft and missiles. After the establishment of a National Security Council in 2013, those governments passed multiple laws in the name of security, from controls on state secrets to the authorization of eavesdropping, the control of drones, and the use of land.

The land-use regulation law (tochi kiseiho) adopted by Suga’s administration in June 2021 is reminiscent of the prewar fascist land control system. It designated special “observation areas” for official surveillance and control in the vicinity of major installations such as military bases, nuclear power plants, and major communications posts. On the island of Okinawa, many people see it as forming part of a state design to enable surveillance and control over the local movement against US military bases.

Huge Japanese arms purchases have muted US criticisms of Japan for supposedly not paying its way. Most recently, Lockheed Martin was able to sell 105 F-35B aircraft to Japan’s Air SDF for about $23 billion. Increasingly, the US forces stationed in Japan work alongside their Japanese counterparts as part of a unified US-Japan force that is under US command.

Under Control

Abe and Suga failed to carry the country with them as they addressed the major issues of 2020–21: the Olympic Games and the COVID-19 pandemic. Japan’s ruling elite assumed that the grand (and belated) Olympic celebration would open the way for an era of peace and recovery from the 2011 Fukushima earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, and the more recent pandemic. This in turn would lead to an LDP election triumph and a revamp of the constitution to scrap Article 9. But things did not work out like that.

Having previously assured the international community that it had the Fukushima problem “under control,” Japan offered similar pledges that the Olympics would take place in “safe and secure” mode. But COVID-19 rampaged through the Japanese population even as the Olympics reached their peak, and support for Suga dropped from around 70 percent in September 2020 to below 30 percent. Yet his government was impervious to public criticism. The miasma of scandal, deception, and corruption that Suga had inherited in August 2020 thickened during his year in office.

With national elections looming, Suga’s position became untenable. The government’s own pollsters had reported that the LDP would hemorrhage seats in a general election and potentially lose its role in government. In August, an independent critic of the government defeated a close associate of Suga’s by an extraordinary 12 percent margin in the Yokohama mayoral election. Suga announced his decision not to stand for reelection as LDP chief, claiming that he wanted to devote himself fully to combating COVID-19, to general disbelief.

The change of personnel didn’t mean a change of policy. All four candidates to succeed Suga were committed to continuation of the Abe-Suga government’s basic principles. They support major projects such as the construction of a US Marine Corps base on Oura Bay in Okinawa, regardless of cost, local opposition, or the site’s geological and seismic frailty, and they follow a military-first, anti-China posture in line with Washington’s dictates.

However, opposition to the basic priorities of the LDP-led Japanese state does of course exist in Japanese society. Indeed, it has been growing, nurtured by anxiety over the Abe government’s departures from constitutional pacifism. There have been important bottom-up efforts to contest such agendas by local governments and by a short-lived non-LDP national government that was formed in 2009. The Civic Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism, commonly known as the Citizens’ League or Shimin Rengo, formulated a set of principles ahead of this year’s election as part of a “switch to life-affirming politics.”

On September 8, 2021, the leaders of Japan’s major opposition parties — the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, and Reiwa Shinsengumi — endorsed those principles. The charter made no explicit reference to Japan’s status as a US client state, but its implicit message was clear, calling for the country to return to the values of its constitution and adopt a peace-oriented role in regional and global affairs. There was also a promise to investigate the multiple cases of suspected malfeasance by the Abe and Suga governments.

As analysts have pointed out, if the opposition parties had organized themselves on a united-front basis around such principles in the 2017 general election, they could have defeated LDP-Komeito candidates in 64 seats. In the upcoming election, they could even threaten the seats of some leading government members.

War Games

The tempo of military exercises in East Asia has been accelerating. The United States has brought together a global “coalition of the willing” united behind its leadership, resolved to stop China and maintain US global hegemony. Between January and May of this year alone, Japan’s Maritime SDF (MSDF) participated in multilateral, multinational exercises on twenty-three occasions. Over the last twelve months, there have been several major deployments.

From October 26 to November 5, 2020, Operation Keen Sword 21 assembled a total of 9,000 service members and more than 100 aircraft, with involvement from the US Navy (the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier force), Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps as well as the Japanese MSDF, in waters around Okinawa. La Pérouse 21 in April 2021 saw participation from Japanese, French, US, Australian, and Indian forces in the Bay of Bengal, including the French nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and the nuclear attack submarine Émeraude.

Between June 25 and August 7, the US Marines and Japan’s Ground SDF both sent 8,000-strong units to join Operation Talisman Sabre 21 alongside British and Australian troops in Queensland, as well as smaller forces from Canada, New Zealand, and South Korea. Britain’s largest and most expensive warship, the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, visited Japan in September to considerable fanfare, accompanied by a US destroyer and a Dutch frigate, after conducting exercises in nearby waters.

Japan’s defense minister Kishi Nobuo welcomed the British ship’s arrival:

The involvement of European nations in the Indo-Pacific region is the key to peace and stability as China’s military strength and influence grow.

Germany has also declared an “Asia-Pacific strategy” and will be sending its own frigate, the Bayern, to join the MSDF in the East China Sea this November.

As warships maneuver in and out of this maritime region, the possibility of clashes will arise, whether by accident or design. In the most drastic scenario, rival claims by Japan and China to sovereignty over the tiny and uninhabitable Senkaku/Diaoyu islands might be the trigger. It beggars belief that the world’s “great powers” — the United States, the UK, Japan, France, and, on the other side, China — are so intent on muscle-flexing that they could endanger regional and even global peace through disagreements over Senkaku’s windswept rocks.

Plugging Gaps

Japan has also been seeking to plug “gaps” in its defenses, militarizing the chain of islands between Kyushu and Taiwan so as to potentially block access to Chinese vessels, both military and civil, traveling to and from the Pacific. The view of China as a threat dates back to the Democratic Party of Japan government of 2009–12. Its National Defense Program Guidelines, adopted in December 2010, identified the military modernization of China as forming part of the “security environment surrounding Japan,” and outlined the need for a “dynamic defense force” to replace the existing “basic defense force” concept.

In August 2011, the Democratic Party government announced the deployment of SDF units to close “windows of deterrence” against China. By late 2012, Japanese government officials had accorded defense of the Southwestern islands “the highest priority.” After regaining power in December 2012, the LDP reinforced this posture.

The militarization of the East China Sea has proceeded rapidly over the past decade. The long-established US bases on Okinawa Island include those of the US Air Force at Kadena and the Marine Corps at Futenma, with the huge new Henoko base under construction to substitute for Futenma at some time in the late 2030s. To these are being added multiple SDF missile and coastal surveillance units on the islands of Amami, Miyako, Ishigaki, and Yonaguni.

The uninhabited Mage Island, which the government bought from its private owners in 2019, has been designated for construction of a joint US-Japan military base, housing units from all three Japanese services and hosting planes from the US carrier fleet for nighttime deck-top takeoff and landing practice. There has, however, been strong opposition from the city of Nishinoomote, to which Mage administratively belongs. It elected an anti-base mayor in 2017 and reelected him this year.

If Sino-Japanese hostilities were to break out, it would most likely happen in the waters of the East China Sea, whether on or around Taiwan or in the vicinity of these islands, with Japan acting to bottle up Chinese forces within that country’s first defensive line. That, of course, would be an act of war.

Shock from Kabul

In August 2021, the world was transfixed by the spectacle of a global superpower, commanding a huge multinational coalition armed with every weapon imaginable, being driven from Kabul, Afghanistan, by a ragged band of religious fanatics armed with AK-47s, as the humiliating culmination of a twenty-year struggle between utterly mismatched parties. If the United States could be driven so ignominiously from a state in which it had invested so much, no state can be fully confident of any US security guarantee. If there is a message from Kabul to the rest of the world, it might be: “Client states, beware.”

While the shock waves continued, a different kind of shock spread from the announcement of the AUKUS agreement to transfer US or British nuclear technology — and at some point in the future, actual submarines — to Australia. The announcement of this fresh “Anglo-Saxon” coalition had a bitter taste for Japan, since it implied that there would be a tiered structure of clientelist order, with Australia as a quasi-nuclear state occupying a place one rung higher than Japan. This must rankle Abe and his associates.

For almost thirty years, since he first took a seat in the Japanese Diet back in 1993, Abe Shinzō’s hand has been on the tiller of the state. Even when he was not actually the head of government, his wishes have been carried out under the principle of sontaku, or spontaneous compliance. Kishida Fumio and Suga Yoshihide have been his faithful acolytes since 1993 and 1996 respectively. About half of the new cabinet seats have been given to novices, so the policy influence of the handful of heavyweights at its center will be exceptionally high.

Kishida now heads what amounts to the third phase of the Abe government that began in December 2012 and continued in 2020–21 under Suga. At its inner core sit the so-called “Triple A” of Abe and his closest associates, former deputy prime minister Aso Taro and Amari Akira, the LDP’s secretary general, joined by Abe’s brother Kishi Nobuo as defense secretary and his disciple, the extreme right-winger Takaichi Sanae, as chair of the Policy Research Council.

On October 4, Kishida did as expected and called a general election for October 31. Support for his government, at 49 percent, was roughly thirty points lower than it had been when Suga took office a year earlier. However, that has not necessarily translated into greater support for the LDP’s opponents. The general mood of the country is one of disaffection. According to various polls, the combined popular support for the opposition parties might be as low as 10 and no higher than 20 percent, so they will have to attract a substantial group of the disaffected during the campaign to have any hope of forming a government.

For decades, the Abe or Abe-Suga state has been conspicuous for its blend of nationalist bluster about Japan’s history (including its crimes against its neighbors) and obsessiveness about state rituals centered on the emperor with servility toward Washington. Japan’s voice has been little heard in global fora on the crucial and universal questions facing humanity: peace, sustainability, justice, equality. The global outlook today might be even bleaker, more right-wing, more dangerous (for Japan and the world), and even less attuned to a democratic, peace-oriented, and citizen-centered agenda than at any time during the Abe ascendancy.

Under Kishida, should he prevail in the October election, we can expect an increased allocation of resources to the Self-Defense Forces and their more conspicuous mobilization and merger with US forces in a globalized, anti-China coalition in East Asian and Western Pacific waters. Egged on by Washington, Japan would ready itself for war. Alternatively, under a Constitutional Democratic Party–led coalition, with party leader Edano Yukio in the prime minister’s seat, the current momentum toward war might be arrested, and a window opened upon a different, truly alternative future.