Over the last month, Japan has been shaken by the largest anti-war demonstrations since the late 1960s, when millions of students, workers, and ordinary citizens turned out to try to block their government’s collaboration with the US war in Vietnam. The issue this time is the plan by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to alter a key provision of Japan’s peace constitution to allow Japan’s “Self Defense Forces” to take part in overseas military operations for the first time since World War II.
That happened on July 16, when Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party pushed through a critical vote in the Japanese Diet to lift its 70-year ban on foreign deployments and, as The New York Times reported, give “Japan’s military limited powers to fight in foreign conflicts.” This week, the controversial legislation is being debated by Japan’s Upper House. The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, faces an uphill battle to stop the bill despite the growing number of people expressing their opposition in the streets.
Abe’s victory will transform Japan—with its surprisingly large, tech-driven military-industrial complex—into America’s new proxy army. It builds on recent changes to US-Japanese “guidelines” on strategic cooperation that, as the Times has reported, will “expand the reach of Japan’s military—now limited to its own defense—allowing it to act when the United States or countries American forces are defending are threatened.” The agreement was hammered out in April, when Abe met at the White House with President Obama, and was clearly on the administration’s mind when the LDP claimed victory in the Diet.
“We certainly welcome Japan’s ongoing efforts to strengthen the alliance and to play a more active role in regional and international security activities, as reflected in our new guidelines for US-Japan defense cooperation,” State Department spokesman Robert Kirby told reporters. And as Foreign Policy pointed out last week, the development “could be very good news for U.S. defense contractors.”
But the dramatic shift in Japan’s military posture is strongly opposed by its neighbors, particularly in Korea and China. A recent poll showed 62 percent of Japanese respondents opposed the security legislation, the Japan Times reports. And as protests by citizens, academics, constitutional scholars, and even government officials mount, some analysts believe the right-wing Abe has badly overstepped and may have even dug his own political grave by flouting Japan’s strong commitment to pacifism in overseas affairs.
So who is this prime minister who has won the trust of the Obama administration while earning the enmity of the growing majority of its own citizens? Here’s everything you need to know about “our guy” in Tokyo and his party’s long ties to the United States.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party was put in power with the help of the CIA and became one of the most subservient political allies the United States has ever had.
Here is how I described the LDP’s history as America’s underling in Asia in The Nation in 2003:
[Japan’s LDP] was the junior partner to the United States during the cold war, when Washington created an alliance of anticommunist dictators who supported American foreign policy while repressing their own people…. The symbiotic relationship between Washington and Tokyo was forged in 1948, when the United States “reversed course” in its occupation of Japan to focus on the containment of communism. Almost overnight, US policy shifted from punishing Japanese bureaucrats and industrialists responsible for World War II to enlisting them in a global war against the Soviet Union and China.
This was an easy shift for the corporate and financial conglomerates who backed Japan’s cruel war, according to Muto Ichiyo, a Japanese writer and activist who worked closely with the US anti-war movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
“The part of Japanese imperialism which was made powerless after the defeat in the war wanted, of course, to revive itself,” Muto once explained to me in Tokyo. “But they knew perfectly well that the situation had changed. They knew also that fighting against America again would be both impossible and purposeless. So they adopted a very clear-cut strategy: Japan will concentrate on the buildup of the economic base structure of imperialism, while America will practically rule Asia through its military forces.”
The late, great Chalmers Johnson once compared Japan’s postwar LDP prime ministers to the East German leaders Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker and their obeisance to the USSR. “Just as the two satraps of the German Democratic Republic faithfully followed every order they ever received from Moscow, each and every Japanese prime minister, as soon as he comes into office, get on an air plane and reports to Washington,” Johnson wrote in Blowback, his classic account of the Cold War’s impact on US foreign policy.
The LDP’s CIA ties were documented by Times reporter Tim Weiner in his excellent history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes. As summarized by the great Tokyo journalist Jake Adelstein, Weiner’s Japan chapter “details how in post-war Japan, the CIA, using large amounts of cash, reinstated former war criminal Kodama Yoshio and hand-picked one of Japan’s Prime Ministers–in order to suppress communist/socialist movements…and ensure that Japan didn’t go red.” Adelstein himself investigated the LDP’s mob ties to the Japanese yakuza, who were often enlisted by the LDP to crush antiwar and labor protests.
Abe, who was previously Prime Minister from 2006 to 2007, represents the most right-wing faction of the pro-American LDP, and speaks for a virulent minority of politicians and civil society groups who idealize Japan’s World War II empire in East Asia and want to restore its greatness in a military alliance with the United States.
According to Gavan McCormack, the eminent Australian historian of modern Japan:
Abe…was in fact the most radical of all Japanese post-1945 leaders. He declared his…mission as Prime Minister to be nothing less than the “recovery of independence” (dokuritsu no kaifuku). His term was marked by denialism (of war responsibility, notably for the comfort women and the Nanjing massacre) and ultra-nationalism (the insistence on the need to rewrite Japan’s history and its textbooks so as to make people proud and fill them with patriotic spirit)…. [He] strived to turn the bilateral relationship into a “mature” alliance, reinforcing Japanese military subordination and integration under US command and taking preliminary steps towards revising the constitution to facilitate that process.
With his latest triumphs in the Diet, Abe has fulfilled his most cherished dreams—and those of his own family. As Abe likes to remind audiences, he is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, one of the original members of the LDP who was Japan’s prime minister from 1957 to 1960. During World War II, Kishi was minister of commerce and industry in the wartime Tojo Cabinet and labeled by the US occupation as a “Class A” war criminal for helping run Japan’s colonial empire in Manchuria. And, as Weiner’s book documents, he was funded for years by the CIA. Abe, whose father also served at the highest reaches of the LDP, is very proud of Kishi, as The Wall Street Journal reported upon his second election as premier in December 2014:
Shinzo Abe recalls sitting on his grandfather’s lap as a young boy 55 years ago. They listened to protesters in the streets outside who opposed the older man’s push to rebuild Japan’s military after World War II, Mr. Abe says. Soon after, Mr. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, resigned as Japan’s prime minister, his aims for his country unfulfilled. Now, as Japan’s most powerful prime minister in years, Mr. Abe is looking to complete some of his grandfather’s unfinished business.
The “unfinished business” of an expanded US-Japan military alliance has been pushed heavily by US national security officials from both the Democratic and Republican parties for decades.
Last April, just before he retired as Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel made the link between Abe’s remilitarization and the changes in Japan’s constitution very explicit, telling Nikkei, Japan’s premiere financial newspaper, that the Obama administration “welcomes Japan’s efforts to play a more proactive role in the alliance, including by re-examining the interpretation of its constitution relating to the right of collective self-defense.”
The US position on the alliance was spelled out in 2012, in a joint statement issued by Washington’s most important military think-tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS (which, in addition to being heavily funded by defense contractors, receives a considerable amount of money from the Japanese government).
The CSIS panel was chaired by the leading ideologists of the Make-Japan-Our-Proxy-Army Movement (yes, I made that up), Richard Armitage, a military veteran of the Reagan and Bush II administrations, and Joseph Nye, a Democratic policy-maker and former Pentagon official at Harvard’s Kennedy School. In 2012, they convened a panel of Asian “experts” from the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations that included Asia hardliners Victor Cha and Michael Green, both now of Georgetown University, and David Asher, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, the military think-tank that’s supplied half of Obama’s appointments to the Pentagon (Armitage chairs its board of advisers).
Suffice to say, these are the current “wise men” of the American foreign policy establishment, and they had strong words for Abe and their new proxy military. Here were their instructions to Tokyo:
Japan should expand the scope of her responsibilities to include the defense of Japan and defense with the United States in regional contingencies. The allies require more robust, shared, and interoperable ISR capabilities and operations that extend well beyond Japanese territory. It would be a responsible authorization on the part of Japan to allow U.S. forces and JSDF to respond in full cooperation throughout the security spectrum of peacetime, tension, crisis, and war
In the body of the report, Armitage and Nye directly address the question of constitutional change in Japan, as if the United States, which did impose the 1945 constitution, continues to have the right to tell its defeated colony what to do.
The irony…is that under the most severe conditions requiring the protection of Japan’s interests, our forces are legally prevented from collectively defending Japan. A change in Japan’s prohibition of collective self-defense would address that irony in full…. Prohibition of collective self-defense is an impediment to the alliance…. It would be a responsible authorization to allow our forces to respond in full cooperation throughout the security spectrum of peacetime, tension, crisis, and war.
On July 13, Abe got that change through his Diet. Now it only has to pass the Upper House, and it becomes law. When it does, Japan—with assistance from the United States—will have taken a decisive step away from 70 years as a pacifist nation.
Which brings me back to Jake Adelstein, one of very few foreign reporters in Japan who’ve kept the tradition of investigative reporting alive. In a highly trafficked article in the Daily Beast, Adelstein said that Abe had badly over-reached in his zeal to make Japan part of the US military order in East Asia, and could fall as a result.
The popularity of his cabinet is sinking, the majority of the population now opposes the legislation, [and] over 90 percent of Japanese academics, and former prosecutors as well, have condemned the proposed legislation as unconstitutional. The media is turning on him. Even heavy hitters within his own Liberal Democratic Party are voicing disapproval. Its former secretary general, Makoto Koga, called the Abe regime “dark and creepy” in a recent interview.
A poll by Nippon TV saw disapproval ratings for the Abe government rising higher than its approval for the first time since he assumed power in December 2012. Support for the cabinet is 39 percent; disapproval 41 percent. Some 59 percent of those polled oppose passage of the Legislation for Peace and Security (aka the War Bill). Only 24 percent actually supports the bills. It may be the beginning of the end of his reign.
Let’s hope so.