Japan’s shift can be seen in an increasingly muscular role for the nation’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF), in a push among mainstream politicians to revise key portions of the pacifist constitution and in a new willingness to clash with China, particularly in the East China Sea, where U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said this week he was “concerned about conflict.”
But analysts stress that Japan, even with its rightward shift, still remains ambivalent about its military; Japan is merely moving toward the center, they say, after decades of being perhaps the world’s most pacifist advanced nation.
“The post-World War II Japan policy was to be low-key
and cooperation-oriented,” said Narushige Michishita, a self-
described moderate and a security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “We tried to avoid any confrontation or friction with surrounding countries. . . . But there’s a widespread feeling in the minds of Japanese people that being nice didn’t work out.”
Polls suggest Japanese are increasingly concerned about security and feel their country faces an outside threat. According to government data collected earlier this year, 25 percent think Japan should increase its military strength, compared with 14 percent three years ago and 8 percent in 1991.
That shift in thinking is reflected in Japan’s leaders, including hawkish Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, son of an SDF member, who has restored the U.S.-Japan security alliance as the “foundation” of Tokyo’s foreign policy. That’s a stark shift from three years ago, when then-leader Yukio Hatoyama frayed ties with Washington and dreamed of a harmonious “East Asian community” that included China.
But Noda, unpopular and likely facing an election in the upcoming months, is a relative moderate compared with those lining up to take his place. Front-runner Shigeru Ishiba, of the Liberal Democratic Party, said in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal that the SDF should be able to fire warning shots against maritime intruders; currently, the SDF yields to the Coast Guard to handle incursions. Another top candidate, Nobuteru Ishihara, son of China-baiting Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, said recently that part of the country “will be snatched” if Japan is off guard.
Some of the get-tough-on-China talk, surging this summer amid a recent territorial dispute, merely caters to Japan’s small and vocal group of nationalists. But such security issues have also “become more important to common people as well,” said Yuichi Hosoya, a professor of international politics at Keio University, and no politician can ignore that.