A New Direction for Japan’s Security Policy?

The Halifax International Security Forum, held in Halifax, Canada, on November 20-22, 2009, brought together leaders from around the world in politics, military, government, business, academia, and media. More than 300 participants took part in intellectual exchange on pressing strategic issues. Senior Fellow Tsuneo Watanabe was a speaker at one of the panels, and an extract of his paper is carried here.

Tsuneo Watanabe appeared on a panel titled “Nukes: Who's Got'Em? Who Wants'Em? Who's Giving'Em Away? What Do We Do About It?” along with Camille Grand, executive director of the Foundation for Strategic Research; Stephen Hadley, senior advisor for international affairs, US Institute of Peace; and Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary for arms control and international security, US Department of State. The panel was moderated by Roger Cohen, columnist for the New York Times and International Herald Tribune. The video and transcript of the program is available at: http://fora.tv/2009/11/22/Nukes_Whos_Got_Em_Who_Giving_Em_Away#fullprogram
Download PDF of Watanabe’s full paper (External link)

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Yukio Hatoyama, of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), was elected as Japan’s prime minister on September 16, 2009. This new Japanese administration is widely seen as heralding a new era in Japanese politics. Questions therefore arise not only about politics in the domestic arena but in the foreign and security policy sphere as well.

Policy Agenda of the Hatoyama Cabinet

The Hatoyama administration’s approval ratings stand at more than 70 percent. That popularity is mainly driven by domestic factors, but Japanese voters have long hoped for a leader who could offer the country a more significant role on the international stage. What does this mean for a U.S.-led Western alliance that has become used to predictability and stability in the management and direction of Japanese foreign and security policy?

Hatoyama has already raised eyebrows in that respect in both Japan and the United States. A New York Times editorial on September 1, for example, expressed one concern about Japan that the Obama administration must be looking at nervously, pointing to Hatoyama’s suggestion that Japan not renew the mandate for Japanese ships on a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of United States military operations in Afghanistan.

A meeting between Hatoyama and U.S. President Barack Obama on September 24 produced the standard diplomatic mantras reaffirming both countries’ commitment to the Japan-U.S. alliance as a bedrock of mutual security. However, both leaders avoided contentious issues, leaving the precise trajectory of U.S.-Japanese relations as an open question. With this in mind, the DJP’s record is not altogether encouraging. For example, apart from its attitude to the Indian Ocean refueling mission, its 2008 policy platform called for building a more “equal relationship” with the United States and suggested that it would seek to revise the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).

With regard to the transfer of facilities at Futenma Air Station in Okinawa—something the two governments have spent years negotiating—the DPJ is calling for a solution different from that already agreed on by Tokyo and Washington. By throwing a last-minute wrench in the works, the new government threatens to provoke the ire of the Obama administration and to call into question Japan’s status as a reliable partner.

There are three alliance-related issues that now stand at the forefront of international diplomacy, and that form the key questions about how Japan’s foreign and security policy will develop with respect to the United States and the wider world:

1. Will Japan in fact quit the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean?

2. Will Japan seek a renegotiation of existing relocation plans for U.S. forces in Japan including the Futenma Airbase, which is located in a densely populated residential area?

3. Will Japan ask the United States to negotiate a new deal on SOFA, opening the prospect of greater Japanese jurisdiction over U.S. military officers in Japan?

There are obvious potential headaches over some, if not all, of the above for the Obama administration. Perhaps the most troublesome concerns the question of relocating the Futenma Airbase to Camp Schwab within Okinawa. Many DPJ and SDP supporters want Futenma out of Okinawa completely. At the same time, the existing agreed plan includes moving 8,000 U.S. Marines to Guam and the return of land south of the Kadena Air Base. These are significant steps aimed at reducing the burden on the Okinawan people. Currently, Prime Minister Hatoyama is sending mixed signals on what he wants the final outcome to look like.

Futenma, of course, has been a thorn in the Japan-U.S. alliance since it was originally enacted in 1996 between then-Prime Minister Hashimoto and then-U.S. President Bill Clinton. If Hatoyama shows a willingness to remove that thorn, this would be a good boost for Japan-U.S. alliance management. For example, the United States might accept Japan’s civilian aid plan for Afghan reconstruction as an alternative to the current refueling mission in the Indian Ocean. SOFA revision may still be tough, but it would not be impossible to at least formulate a study group to try and resolve it.

Long-term Prospects amid New Political Realities

All in all, despite some possible confusion in the short term, I am optimistic for the Hatoyama administration’s security and foreign policy in the longer term. At the very least, there is a good chance that Japan can break free from the stagnant agendas that became a fact of life for Japan’s relations with the outside world during decades of rule by the LDP.

Lest anyone forget, Japan has pursued a policy of extreme self-restraint in the use of its military. This, of course, has been due to deeply ingrained anti-war sentiment arising from World War II as well as postwar political structures dating from 1955. Such political structures and historical legacies failed to foster rational policy debates in the Japanese Parliament based on a rounded analysis of the international environment.

The SDP, historically the largest opposition party, and the Japan Communist Party never accepted military cooperation with the United States. Both parties strongly opposed any attempts at moves in this direction as well as those aimed at strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities. In order to maintain smooth relations between government and opposition in parliament and in deference to deep-seated anti-war sentiments among the general public, LDP-led governments were never successful in changing the prevailing interpretation of the pacifist Article 9 of the constitution. This has left legal and political obstacles in the way of any Japanese government wanting to send troops to conflict zones.

However, the social democratic and communist presence in high politics continues to shrink. The largest opposition party is now the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Theoretically, Japan’s new political realities could allow for more rational policy choices in the security arena than we have seen for much of Japan’s postwar history. Hatoyama has in fact made positive noises in favor of amending the constitution, including Article 9. He inherited the idea from his grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, who served as prime minister from 1954 to 1956, and who proposed amending the constitution as well as Japanese rearmament. Another powerful DPJ leader, party Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, once argued that Japan could send self-defense forces to conflict zones, which would allow Japanese forces to fight if the mission were authorized by the United Nations. He was an advocate for Japan as a “normal” nation in his 1994 book, Blueprint for a New Japan. As Japan’s history from 1955 to 2009 shows, a critical precondition for developing Japan’s thinking on security policy is a political structure that enables constructive policy debates.

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s bold decision to send troops to Iraq in 2003 was only possible with the DPJ functioning as a less ideological and more pragmatic opposition party. Nonetheless, Article 9 remained a major obstacle and any efforts to tamper with it were still seen as extremely politically risky. The challenge for the current administration, as well as for the ones that will follow it, is to find a way to adapt Article 9 so that it does not remain such an obstacle in the future.

In sum, Japan’s new political realities could potentially enable many things that were once considered impossible. The birth of the DPJ government could yet herald a new beginning for Japan’s role in the international security arena.


The Halifax International Security Forum provides a unique venue for thought-leaders and policymakers to discuss such issues as nuclear proliferation, Arctic security, the conflict in Afghanistan, and maritime security. It was organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States in cooperation with the government of Canada, the Department of National Defence, and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

Tsuneo Watanabe

  • Senior Fellow, Tokyo Foundation

    Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation