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December 25, 2006

Defense Agency Upgrade More than Mere Name Change

Is Japan's democracy strong enough to keep upgraded defense establishment from running amok, as it did before World War II?

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor for the Foreign Press Center Japan)

A bill giving ministry status to the Defense Agency has been approved. Although the matter is generally seen as being merely procedural - a name change - it is notable in two ways. It is another milestone in Japan's redressing its legacy of defeat handed down from World War II. It also modifies a postwar system marked by strong antiwar sentiment. More than 60 years after its 1945 surrender, the nation seems to be finally reconciling with its past step by step.

Postwar rearmament took a modest step forward in 1950 with the establishment of the National Police Reserve, the predecessor of the Self-Defense Forces.

The reserve was created at the urging of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of the Allied occupation forces. At the time, U.S. troops in Japan were being sent to fight the Korean War, and a void opened in domestic security. The reserve was renamed the National Security Force in 1952, then the Self-Defense Forces in 1954, under control of the Defense Agency.

Low profile

Throughout its history, the defense establishment has been held to second-class citizenship. Some critics argue that if the postwar Constitution were to be followed to the letter, then the SDF are illegitimate children.

Keeping defense at agency status, one rank below the full-fledged ministerial status, for more than 50 years is symbolic of this mood. Past attempts by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party were hampered by leftist opposition parties committed to postwar pacifism and anti-militarism.

That the Diet has approved a bill to give the agency ministerial status and done so with the support of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is testimony that the Japanese people have finally overcome the postwar attitude and taken a mature stance on matters of national security.

As an agency is an extra-ministerial bureau, defense matters are kept under control of the Cabinet Office. The Defense Agency's chief, for example, cannot submit to the cabinet such important issues as defense policies and key personnel appointments without going through the prime minister as chief of the Cabinet Office.

Once the agency has been upgraded, the defense minister will be able to submit these matters directly to the cabinet and send budgetary requests directly to the finance minister. On matters related to the overseas dispatch of SDF troops, the Foreign Ministry has taken initiatives in the past, with Defense Agency officials left on the sidelines.

With ministerial status, defense officials will feel much less restricted in their actions and assertiveness.

Seizing on the creation of the Defense Ministry, there is a move within the ruling party in favor of a law that will allow overseas dispatch of Japanese troops without requiring a special legislation each time they are deployed abroad.

In a concomitant amendment to the Self-Defense Forces Law, overseas duties of Japanese troops will be upgraded to one of their primary jobs from the status of "an ancillary job" in the past.

For those who support promoting the Defense Agency, that is exactly what is needed so that the defense establishment can be up to the job it has to do in the changed security environment and the national mood.

In contrast, some cautious views are also being voiced. Typical is the stand taken by the Asahi Shimbun, which in an editorial expressed outright opposition to upgrading the Defense Agency. Japan's second-largest newspaper asserted that keeping the defense establishment in check with less than full ministerial status is still a wise policy as a symbol of a peace-loving nation, which is the course chosen by Japan in deep remorse for its wartime aggression.

The Asahi Shimbun was about the only major newspaper to straightforwardly oppose the change in status. Presumably, it took the position because of a deep-seated lack of confidence in the Japanese people's ability to control the military. The newspaper is still haunted by the memories of the prewar days when the military went out of control.

This is apparently a minority view, and reminded me of a recent lecture in Tokyo by the well-known American grief counselor Robert Neimeyer, in which he talked about the complete split of a person's life as a result of trauma left by a profound loss. In these cases, Neimeyer said, those suffering losses cannot relate their lives before the trauma to what follows.


Although his lecture was on a different topic, Neimeyer's theory seemed to apply perfectly to the collective Japanese psyche, which was divided by the unspeakable sense of loss and resultant trauma from the country's crushing defeat in the war.

Over the decades since August 1945, Japanese have viewed their history before and after that fateful time as if it had been completely severed in an unbridgeable way. The Asahi Shimbun is now increasingly mocked for its unapologetically liberal outlook. Its championing of postwar liberal and peace-oriented causes is derided as an anachronism out of touch with reality.

But the public remains ambivalent and divided on this particular issue of the establishment of the Defense Ministry. An opinion poll by public broadcaster NHK showed that the percentage of respondents who supported the upgrading was 25%, while that of those who opposed was 31%, with the rest undecided.

Whether one sees this state of the public mind as healthy or not, it signals a lingering wariness about the nightmare of a military juggernaut in the future, with the unleashing of the defense establishment from postwar restraint. The fundamental issue is how confident Japanese are in the ability of their democracy to keep the military under firm control.

(Originally appeared in the December 18, 2006 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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