Editorial: Defense Minister’s speech  Is there really no tilt to the right?

In a speech at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore on June 1, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said, “Those who say that Japan has tilted to the right have got it all wrong.” Mr. Onodera made this statement with regard to the Abe administration’s efforts to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities and to discuss seeking approval to exercise the right of collective defense. This can be seen as an effort to gain the understanding of the international community.

As the topic of an international conference on the subject of security, this statement was unusual, and it was probably made out of consideration for the feelings of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the run-up to the House of Councillors election.

But stating that people have “got it all wrong” about the administration’s tilt to the right demonstrates how much concern has been caused both in Japan and abroad about the recent defense strategy of the Abe administration and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The other day the LDP’s National Defense Division suggested calling for the government to discuss “maintaining the capability to attack enemy bases” in the new defense program outline to be formulated this year. This can be construed as a reference to the capability to hit the missile bases of nations that can attack Japan.

This differs from the “exclusively for defense” posture of the security policies of past LDP administrations. Paragraph 1 of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution renounces war, while Paragraph 2 stipulates that the nation will not maintain war potential. In terms of the size of the budget, Japan is the world’s fifth largest military power, but the Constitution’s pacifism has imposed limitations.

In his speech Mr. Onodera sought understanding adding that “the goal is to contribute to regional stability.” There is no doubt that North Korea’s nuclear development and its acts of provocation pose a serious threat to East Asia’s security.

But is this directly linked to Japan’s maintenance of the capability to attack enemy bases? At a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the summit in Singapore, the defense ministers of Japan, the U.S. and South Korea discussed moves by North Korea, which has shown signs that it is interested in pursuing dialogue, and agreed to enhance reconnaissance and surveillance and to share information.

Through the bridge-building efforts of the U.S., the relationship between Japan and South Korea seems to have improved, and the two nations agreed to ask North Korea to abandon its nuclear development program. Mr. Onodera should have a grasp of the changes in the situation, and he must call for restraint on an over-reaction within the LDP.

In his speech, the defense minister also referred to the remarks about “comfort women” by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party. He explained that, while Mr. Hashimoto’s repeated inappropriate remarks have caused misunderstanding and distrust among Japan’s neighbors, the Abe administration will not take sides.

The repercussions of the series of remarks by Mr. Hashimoto are growing. He was forced to cancel a visit to the U.S. scheduled for this month, and the other day the Committee against Torture, which operates under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations, called on the Japanese government to "refute attempts to deny the facts by the government authorities and public figures and to re-traumatize the victims through such repeated denials.”

Prior to assuming his post, Prime Minister Abe stated that there were “errors of fact” in the 1993 statement issued by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which acknowledged that the Imperial Japanese Army had been involved in recruiting “comfort women.” He later changed his tune, saying that the administration was not considering revising the Kono statement. Of course, Mr. Hashimoto must not evade his responsibility, but this is not the sort of thing that will be settled just by the Abe administration stating that it will separate itself from the issue.

In his speech, the defense minister said he humbly accepts the facts of history regarding the tremendous harm and suffering inflicted on the people of other Asian nations by Japan during the war. This is merely a repetition of the official view of previous administrations. It is nothing new.

At the beginning of his speech, Mr. Onodera said that Japan, which is regaining its strength through Abenomics, must also exercise strong leadership in regional security. We would like politicians to carefully consider what is behind that strength.

(Originally published on June 4, 2013)