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Ronin: The Masterless Bureaucrats of Japanese Defence Policy

Commentary, 14 June 2010
Yukio Hatoyama is Japan's fourth prime minister to resign in as many years. His departure underlines the exasperation with Japan's leadership at home and abroad, and calls into question the future of the country's defence posture.

Yukio Hatoyama is Japan's fourth prime minister to resign in as many years. His departure underlines the exasperation with Japan's leadership at home and abroad, and calls into question the future of the country's defence posture.

By John Hemmings for

Japan's thorny defence debate has been one of the many common threads contributing to the fall of the last four prime ministers. While domestic factors have all played a role, the most decisive and divisive issue has been Japan's efforts to recalibrate its defence posture with post-Cold War realities.

Japan's posture in the 1980s was that of an economic giant, but a military pygmy; a first-rate power with the mind-set of a superpower satellite. Deciding to change was easy, but the object of that change has become one of the biggest political debates in recent Japanese history.

Policymakers have grappled with two questions: how should Japan create a more equal relationship with the US without risking the Alliance? And is China Japan's greatest economic partner or greatest strategic worry?

Complicated Relationships

Throughout the 1990's the desire to create a more independent posture within the US-Japan alliance was complicated by the rise of China and continued North Korean belligerence. The result of which was a timid Japan, unwilling to leave the safety granted by its strong US relationship. For its own part, the US response following 9/11 has been to urge Japan to take on more global responsibilities and to pull more of its weight in security terms. This has caused a bitter debate inside Japan on how far Japan should go to assist the US.

The right, in the form of the Liberal Democratic party,  is in favour of responding to the call and is keen on rolling back constitutional restrictions that would limit this new policy. They argue that Japan must take steps to be a 'normal country' and be a fully-fledged contributor to the international community. This would include making military contributions.

The left - typically the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the Social Democratic Party, and others - resisted both the roll-back and reinterpreted the 'normalisation process'. Normalisation, they insist, should emphasise diplomacy, remain tied to the United Nations and avoid US military adventurism.

Crisis of Identity

This domestic battle can be seen in the political squabbling over the refuelling mission, which hindered parliamentary debate between 2006 and 2008. It can also be seen in the debate on what Japan should do in Afghanistan, and most recently over the Futenma Base issue. While it may seem that Japan has an alliance problem, in fact the truth is more nuanced than that, in fact Japan is facing a crisis of identity. The United States is at times incidental to the domestic debate, as is the relationship with China. So how has 'musical prime ministers' impacted Japan? How has it impacted the region? Arguably, Japan has been buffered from this policy chaos by its strong bureaucracy, which has maintained the reins of non-politicised policy-making, while surrendering control on sensitive issues.

The Power of the Civil Service

The accusation, by DPJ politicians, that Japan's mandarins run the nation in way that is reminiscent of Sir Humphrey Appleby from the British sitcom 'Yes, Minister' is unfair and ultimately dodges responsibility for making policy. A case in point was how the DPJ assumed policy control of the Futenma base issue, while having little to do with other aspects of defence policy. Remarkably, the decision by Japan to sign a defence agreement with Australia on 1 June 2010 - a small but significant event in Japanese post Cold War history - was carried out by the bureaucracy with little fanfare and little political oversight. The machine can tick over, in other words. But is this how it should be? Should Japanese bureaucrats be given the responsibility for leading their state? Obviously not: civil servants are not risk-takers and ticking over is not decision-making. There are other issues such as writing Japan's defence posture and mending its ailing defence industry, both of which will only continue to deteriorate without political leadership.

Defence in Disarray

In the first instance, political uncertainty has caused Japanese Ministery of Defence (JMoD) bureaucrats to delay by a year the completion of the National Defence Program Guidelines (NDPG), similar in scope to the US Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR). At best, it is not expected to come out until next November. In the meantime, the defence industry is groaning under the weight of deep structural problems, some of which were discussed at a Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) conference in May in Tokyo. Shaped by the import-export ban, Japan's defence industry is an artificially-closed market with over-inflated costs. Often these costs are exaggerated by institutionalised corruption in the form of pork-barrelling by politicians, closed bids, and mark-ups by middle companies which interface between the Ministry of Defence and industry providers. The Moriya scandal of 2007 sparked off an acquisition reform process within the JMoD, but this process needs strong political support to succeed. Added to this has been the fact that most Japanese defence companies consider defence to be a small portion of their business activities and are increasingly unwilling to take large risks for uncertain profits. According to Yukari Kubota, an Associate Professor at Osaka University, more than 20 major defence industrial suppliers including Sumitomo Electric, Japan's only producer of aircraft nose cones, have dropped out of the industry since 2003. This has been largely due to the fact that they are expected to assume research and development costs for platforms bids, which become expensive when things go awry. This was evident in Fuji Heavy Industries' (FHI) lawsuit against the JMoD over its decision to slash orders of the Apache longbow helicopter after only 10 units. As JMoD had planned for 62, FHI and its related subcontractors had spent an initial outlay of 50 billion yen acquiring a license from Boeing and preparing for domestic production.

Balance of Power

This weekend marks the beginning of the G20 Summit in South Korea and the Japan's finance minister will not attend because of the domestic political situation. Tensions over the Cheonan incident continue to rise, but Tokyo has suddenly gone quiet. It is difficult to gauge the regional impact of Japan's continuing political troubles, but Japanese diplomats ruefully admit that Japan's loss has been China's gain. The last few years have seen significant Chinese diplomatic gains in South East Asia as they begin to occupy the vacuum left by Japan. It is entirely possible that future historians will one day look at this period as one that saw China rise to assume a place at the head table. What will they say of Japan? If Japan is unable to address its question of identity and define what role it wants to play on the world stage, they will merely say that Japan was absent.


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