Permissible Arms

Nibbled by ducks. Japanese ducks.

Posted in japan by Karaka on 26 August 2010

Hey, Democratic Party of Japan? Listen up.

It’s really exciting that you somehow managed to turn the tide of sixty years of political opinion to bring your much-beleaguered party to power last year around this time, but the spectacular failure of Yukio Hatoyama this summer and former party leader Ichiro Ozawa’s epic flameout in March of last year really put a kink in those plans, huh?

Naoto Kan was a refreshing change–the administrations finance minister turned prime minister seemed to have his head on straight, or at the very least wasn’t going to run around trying to change everything from the party platform in a mere eight months. I liked him. He was–what’s the word?–stable, something Japan could really use considering the country has traded in for a new prime minister as soon as the new car smell faded from the previous one. (Five in four years. Five in four years. This from one of the “most stable” countries in the world.)

Top that all off with a loss in the Upper House in the Diet, forcing Prime Minister Kan to run effectively offensive measures in his majority-turned-minority government, and you’ve turned the wild success of your party into a sour disappointment in exactly a year. But wait. There’s more.

As of this morning, disgraced former party leader Ichiro Ozawa is back, baby, and those messy little corruption charges don’t seem to bother him at all. See, he’s going to make a bid for party leadership again, facing off against current Prime Minister Kan in the party election next month. Kan, of course, has only been in power for a scant three months. This looks great for your record. This, seriously, is my favorite line from the BBC article:

His bid for power is likely to destabilise the government, analysts said.

REALLY. This idiot is going to destabilise the government? You don’t say! And just to cap it off, Hatoyama is totally in Ozawa’s camp! Because nothing looks better than having the guy that simultaneously couldn’t deliver on his promises and foolishly messed with long-standing defence relationships on your side. Tobias Harris at the WSJ says “In short, the Japanese political system is in for another period of turmoil,” which is about as definitively obvious as you can get. So much for the hope of change with the DPJ. At this point, you might as well bring the LDP back; they may not have been able to get the country out of its long-standing recession, but at least they didn’t treat the Ministry like an air hockey table.


Sisyphus at Work

Posted in japan, united states, us military by Karaka on 11 June 2010

TNR has a long piece on the transition of power in Japan, which covers a lot of ground between the LDP and the DPJ, and really gets to the heart of the matter, which is Japan’s yearn to grow into a fully developed actor with less dependence on the United States.

The United States has long complained that Japan seems incapable of acting like a serious country; that most of its people live in a never-never land of wishful thinking on security issues while its leadership cannot seem to act decisively—whether that be a matter of dealing with longstanding economic problems or equipping a military establishment with the actual means to deal with the threats Japan faces. But the political setup that produces this irresponsibility is of Washington’s doing—it’s the way a vassal state can be expected to behave. And while President Obama is not answerable for the stunted sovereignty that forms the most enduring legacy of the American occupation in Japan, he can be blamed for the complicity of his administration in blocking efforts to transform Japan into a politically mature democracy.

For the underlying subtext of last week’s events is that the United States may really after all prefer vassals to allies.

But I maintain that the issue remains a fundamentally internal one, whatever pressure and action the United States can apply to Japan’s turnkey administration. Until Japan can reconcile its fragile position in east Asia with its wariness of extensive and deadly weaponization, it cannot–as was shown by Hatoyama’s scuttling–claim the position of independent authority it rightly covets. The United States has as much control over Japan’s defense mechanisms as it ever has in the last six decades, and it will take a significant force of public opinion (still understandably hostile towards weaponization) combined with ruthless pursuit of policy change to truly grasp independence on the world stage.

This is not to discount Japan’s power, mind. Japan is the second-largest economy in the world, a well-placed democracy in its region with undeniable influence. But there are clear limits to that power, and they start right about where Futenma is.

Speaking of Okinawa, the US military has instituted a curfew for troops stationed there as of today, locking the doors on those winsome doves from midnight to five am. It is an obvious–but potentially effective–olive branch towards new Prime Minister Kan’s administration and the people of Okinawa. I will be watching attentively to see how it goes.

Lastly, PM Kan spoke today about Japan’s massive internal debt problems, comparing their future bleakly to Greece’s present. In the Guardian:

“We cannot sustain public finance that overly relies on issuing bonds. As we can see from the eurozone confusion that started in Greece, there is a risk of default if growing public debt is neglected and trust lost in the bond market.”

Japan’s public debt stood at 218% of gross domestic product last year, according to the International Monetary Fund – the highest in the industrialised world.

Kan said the debt problem could not be dealt with overnight. “That is why we need to have a drastic reform from now in order to obtain fiscal health.”

Now, the Japan and Greece aren’t quite apples-to-apples comparable–the sources of each country’s debt is quite different. But fiscal austerity measures may actually go down more easily in Japan than they have in Greece or Spain, owing to Kan’s fiscal knowledge and current approval ratings (near 70%). Consumer taxes, however, tend to roil public support, and that’s a potential mechanism that could be proposed. For a consumer-goods driven culture, taxes on goods are hateful. But they could prove necessary.

If Kan chooses to make fiduciary responsibility a cornerstone of his work in the next couple of months–as opposed to divisive and generally unsolvable issues such as Futenma and other culture rifts–he has a good chance of surviving. And to tell the truth, I really hope he does.

Inner Demons

Posted in japan, united states by Karaka on 4 June 2010

I really can’t do better than this NYT headline: Japan Elects a New Premier, Fifth in Four Years:

Naoto Kan, a plain-spoken finance minister with activist roots, was elected prime minister on Friday, making him the fifth Japanese leader in four years.

Mr. Kan, 63, won a vote in the lower house of Parliament and will now go through the formality of being appointed by Emperor Akihito.

Smart choice. Kan is a measured and stable guy, which means he might be able to weather the DPJ through the next couple of years.

Slate asks, Did Washington bring down the Japanese prime minister?, which is a pretty leading question. Hatoyama had political problems out of the gate (scandal, poor response, another scandal, and then Okinawa) that had to have been party to his decision to step down regardless of the futility of his glove-slap at Washington. This was the best graph out of Sneider’s article:

Americans harbored growing concerns about the new government’s desire to strike a more independent pose, along with Hatoyama’s gauzy vision of a new East Asia Community, modeled on the European Union. “The basic issue is that Hatoyama was determined to establish more strategic independence for Japan but did not understand that without Japan developing any alternative strategy for its own defense, this was a dead end,” a senior official told me this week. American officials lectured Japan about the strategic importance of the Marines in countering China’s rise without any sense of irony that the Obama administration is engaged in its own, largely unrequited, courtship of Beijing.

Yeah. That I can believe. When Hatoyama came into office, it was on the wave of being a more independent actor on the world stage. But it’s hard to shake sixty-plus years of close engagement on several levels. I don’t disagree that Japan could or should be a more independent actor, but I think it could have been handled more cleverly. Sheila Smith, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, talks of Japan’s Missed Opportunity:

The change in government last September made obvious Japan’s inability to reconcile itself to today’s proliferation dynamics. On the one hand, Tokyo relied on U.S. nuclear superiority while publicly rejecting the use of these weapons on Japan’s behalf. A recent Japanese government investigation into the existence of “secret agreements” between Tokyo and Washington on the transit of nuclear weaponry brought this deep postwar controversy back into the headlines. After months of government deliberation, Mr. Okada was confronted in Parliament by a fundamental question–what would the government do if Japan was threatened? He pointed out that Japan’s three nonnuclear principles–not to possess, manufacture or allow the introduction of nuclear weapons–were designed to keep its citizens safe from the threat of nuclear use. But he had to acknowledge that the government would have to make its best judgment should Japan be threatened based on the need to protect its citizens.

In this light, Mr Hatoyama’s struggle is reflective not so much of its deep and entangled relationship with the US, but of deep and contradictory motivations within its own nation.

Will Kan do better? There’s only so much a prime minister can do when a nation can’t unify around the question of its future defense.

Escape route to the left

Posted in japan, united states by Karaka on 2 June 2010

Hatoyama resigned!

Japan’s prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, today said he would resign just eight months after he took office, after failing to honour election promises to bring sweeping change to domestic policy and fundamentally alter the country’s relations with the US.

The world’s second biggest economy faces yet another period of uncertainty after Hatoyama, whose Democratic party won by a landslide last year, became Japan’s fourth prime minister in as many years to step down after a year or less in power.

In a further blow to the Democrats five weeks before upper house elections, Ichiro Ozawa, the architect of last year’s election victory, will also step down amid a political funding scandal.

I’ve been fascinated with this sea change in Japanese politics, but I have to say I really didn’t think he’d resign. I mean, it was hubris to gamble so much on being able to resolve the Okinawan dispute, but I figured he’d bounce back. One (albeit significant) dip in the polls and he’s out of there? Wow.

It’s unclear who is likely to replace him from the DPJ hierarchy, especially because the party made the good call to send Ozawa out the door with Hatoyama. Later on the Guardian article above goes on to call Hatoyama’s administration a “centre-left experiment,” which about hits in on the head. I don’t know that Hatoyama has utterly squandered the political support he gained in 2009 for his party, but things look shaky for the upcoming House of Councillors election.

I really didn’t expect him to quit that quickly.

In other news, Tipper and Al have called it quits. Now driving along the Al Gore Parkway in East Tennessee will never be the same again!

Time for a Huddle

Posted in japan, united states, us military by Karaka on 24 May 2010

This afternoon it was reported–with ne’er a ripple–that PM Hatoyama of Japan would adhere to the 2006 agreement made with the US and not pursue the more radical shift off Okinawa he had promised during his campaign.

In the campaign that swept the Democrats to power last year, Hatoyama had raised hopes the Marine base could be moved off Okinawa, host to about half the U.S. forces in Japan.

But Washington sought to stick to the 2006 deal to move the facility from the crowded central city of Ginowan to Nago.

Hatoyama later backtracked, saying some Marines had to stay to deter threats. During a visit to Beijing on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended Hatoyama for making “the difficult but nevertheless correct decision.”

It was pretty unlikely Hatoyama would be able to pursue the issue to a resolution that would actually make the Okinawans happy, realistically; I don’t doubt that he and his administration probably wanted very much to bump the base from Futenma, but even if his party’s ruling secretary hadn’t been indited in a funding scandal and his finance minister Hirohisa Fujii hadn’t left within months of the DPJ’s ascension in the Diet, Hatoyama would have had a challenging time getting past the US’s stubbornness, the logistical nightmare of full-scale transference from the existing USMC infrastructure in the area, and the amount of political capital he would have to trade to accomplish what, in the register of Japan’s political goals, does not amount to a great deal.

Hatoyama, however, took an interesting route in defending his choice.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said on Monday tension on the Korean peninsula underlined the importance of tight U.S.-Japan ties and was key to his decision to keep a controversial U.S. airbase on Okinawa.

While it’s certainly true that things are taking something of a nosedive on the Korean peninsula, and that when China, Japan, and South Korea meet for their trilateral talks later this year North Korea will likely be a foremost topic of conversation, North Korea’s aggression is hardly the straw that sent the camel to the chiropractor. The decision to adhere to the 2006 agreement was political expediency, even if it was regionally timely. But John McCreary has a good take on the situation:

The crisis over the sinking of the patrol ship Cheonan probably contributed to Hatoyama’s decision to not inject any more strain in the US security relationship. The North unwittingly gave Hatoyama an exit that saves face and is defensible on national security grounds, despite the disappointment of the Okinawans. Now is not the time to show North Korea any fractures among the Allies.

The last line is very true. North Korea is a wild card, and it looks like some kind of conflict is coming to a head the closer Kim Jong Il inches towards a fatal health problem.

How long it can go

Posted in japan, united states by Karaka on 20 May 2010

With ten minutes between work and appointment, I wanted to note this essentially non-news story on the Marine base in Futenma. Deal Seems Near on U.S. Base in Japan:

According to the reports, Mr. Hatoyama will soon announce a new plan that will largely adhere to a 2006 agreement to move the busy base, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, to a less populated part of Okinawa — rather than move it off the island entirely, as he had pledged during last summer’s campaign. The reports said that the biggest departure from the previous accord would be a vague call to move some Marine training exercises off Okinawa, in what appears to be a largely symbolic gesture to lighten the island’s military burden.

Yeah. That’s about all anyone could realistically expect. A whole lot of US pressure meeting the already-overstretched DPJ administration of Japan equals taking the most efficient route out of the controversy. I want to know how long the deal will be brokered for–because you can bet that five seconds after that year is up, this issue will be raised again.

And then they’ll make more news.

Posted in afghanistan, africa, american media, japan, united nations by Karaka on 6 May 2010

As a follow up to yesterday, Okinawans respond to PM Hatoyama’s walkback:

Mr Hatoyama made a fundamental mistake by promising something he knew he couldn’t do. He did that just so that he could win the election. He misled the people of Okinawa, he raised their expectations, he gave them an empty hope.

Relocation might be an option, but the problem is that no-one will accept a US base relocating to their backyard. For instance, the government proposed relocating part of the base to Tokunoshima island and there was an outcry from the local population who refused to accept it. A relocation is not going to achieve anything, it will only antagonise a different group of people.

I do think Hatoyama has lost a good chunk of political credibility. It’s a shame, considering he’s viewed as the ascendancy of the DPJ. They’re off to a rocky start.

Things I’ve been reading:

And I’ve been finishing up my March/April Foreign Affairs; it’s remained readable despite its unfortunate whiskey incident:

But I’ve been engrossed in other things and hadn’t gotten around to it. Next up, the whiskey free May/June FA. (Stupid Foreign Policy still hasn’t shown up. That is the single most delayed paper mail subscription I’ve ever had.)

Nihonn go wo renshu suru hitsuyou ga arimasu.

Posted in japan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 5 May 2010

I have to say, there’s some major cognitive dissonance going on for me between watching The Pacific and reading George Packard’s essay, The United States-Japan Security Treaty at 50.

It’s funny–the more I come to learn about World War II, the more I realize how distant it is from me. That is certainly in part due to my age, but also the sheer amount of cultural drift over sixty-five years. I can’t even really conceptualize the Japanese, or the Germans, as a potential enemy. All I think of is nifty gadgets and spending Christmas in Berlin.

I’ve been educating myself about WWII for several years now; you can’t stumble around Britain without hitting a WWI or WWII memorial, and I’ve spent plenty of time stumbling around Britain. But I can understand the political struggles, and have an academic understanding of the conflict, and still can never quite grasp the reality of the past.

Packard tackles the rapidly changing relationship between the United States and Japan. After the 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan came into effect in 1952, Japan maintained a stable (if asymmetrical) relationship with the United States; that relationship was renegotiated into a more equitable relationship in 1960 with a newly inked treaty. That treaty has remained in effect to date, and largely the current unevenness–meaning, a reduction of US military presence in Japan–is due to unprecedented political shift from within the Diet.

One of the central themes of the Democratic Party of Japan’s rise to power was a promise to address concerns about American presence in Japan. This is a long-nurtured issue, borne of many things but certainly not helped by the rape incident on Okinawa in 1995. Prime Minister Hatoyama took office in September 2009, and nearly from the first week of the DPJ’s government he began to address the potential displacement of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

This has been ongoing for the last six months; heck, talk about moving Futenma has been going on since 2005.

PM Hatoyama clearly saw it as a show of power to readdress Japan’s relationship with the US, particularly the part that concerns national security. But the realities of changing the terms of a sixty-year old agreement are legion, both from a foreign policy standpoint with a long-time ally and internally from the now-opposition party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the traditional divides of the Japanese (particularly the charged relationship of Okinawans to the rest of the country). The show of power has devolved somewhat.

The thrust of Packard’s analysis suggests a more reduced influence for the US, and a paternalistic pride in Japan’s thriving democracy.

The U.S. government should respect Japan’s desire to reduce the U.S. military presence on its territory, as it has respected the same desire on the part of Germany, South Korea, and the Philippines. It should be willing to renegotiate the agreement that governs the presence of U.S. troops in Japan, which to some is redolent of nineteenth-century assertions of extraterritoriality. It should be aware that, at the end of the day, Japanese voters will determine the future course of the alliance. Above all, U.S. negotiators should start with the premise that the security treaty with Japan, important as it is, is only part of a larger partnership between two of the world’s greatest democracies and economies. Washington stands to gain far more by working with Tokyo on the environment, health issues, human rights, the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and counterterrorism.

In return for the removal of some U.S. troops and bases from its territory, the Japanese government should make far larger contributions to mutual security and global peace. It should explicitly state that it has the right to engage in operations of collective self-defense. Tokyo would be foolish to establish a community of East Asian nations without U.S. participation. It needs to work with Washington in the six-party talks on how to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese government should also stop protecting its uncompetitive agricultural sector and join in a free-trade agreement with the United States, an idea that has been kicking around for two decades and that the DPJ endorsed in its election manifesto.

Now, I think it’s more likely that the Obama administration would take a route similar to what Packard describes, more so than previous administrations, but that cedes a lot of military authority–especially given the nascent, if uncertain, threat of Chinese action. And it seems improbable that the US would actively change current foreign policy when it’s in a clearly more favorable position. But I find intriguing the idea that Japan might take a more active role in denuclearization and regional security measures. (There’s a lot to be said regarding Japan’s economy and market practices as well, but I am not as versed in that topic.)

As of this week, PM Hatoyama has walked back his earlier statements about Futenma, which suggests the larger difficulty of balancing external pressures from the US and the internal demands of his constituency. Packard’s end scenario seems rather further away:

Finally, in a grand symbolic gesture, President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama should visit Hiroshima together after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Japan next fall and should issue a resounding call to end the manufacture and spread of nuclear weapons, a cause close to the hearts of both men. Then, they should visit Pearl Harbor and declare that no such attack should ever be carried out again.

It’s certainly Obama-like in its idealism; but until Japan has more leverage in its own foreign policy and military-related choices, it seems more likely that Japan will stick with 50+ years of political tradition rather than venture forward standing without intimate support.

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