The Japanese public's growing support for a new defense policy regime
Plus: an appreciation of Nakayama Toshihiro
National broadcaster NHK has released the results of its latest poll, which, beyond showing that the Kishida cabinet’s support remains strong and steady, indicates that the Japanese public is increasingly prepared to support higher defense spending in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Prime Minister Kishida Fumio may not be able to raise defense spending at a stroke of a pen — the budget will ultimately emerge from bargaining between the prime minister’s office, the LDP, its coalition partner Komeito, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Finance — Kishida can be increasingly confident that the public not only will not balk at higher levels of defense spending but may also be prepared to support a more assertive defense posture. A new era for Japan’s national defense may be upon us.
Unlike the recent Nikkei poll that found strong support for the LDP’s proposal to raise defense spending to 2% of GDP, the NHK poll did not ask respondents to evaluate the LDP proposal specifically, but rather whether they support raising defense spending by a lot or some, leaving it unchanged, or cutting it by some or a lot. A total of 52% supported raising it, 14% of whom said “a lot” and 38% of whom said “by some extent.” 29% prefer to keep it unchanged. Only 7% want to cut it by some extent (4%) or a lot (3%).
Perhaps even more notable is that a solid majority supports the LDP’s proposal for Japan to acquire “counterattack capabilities.” 55% approved of the LDP’s proposal, with only 29% opposed and 16% not responding. While not an overwhelming majority — which could be vulnerable as the debate over security policies heats up — it seems indicative that the public is prepared to support a more “normal” Japanese security posture. A TBS-JNN poll from the weekend offers additional support for this notion. In that poll, 52% said that they support revising Japan’s “Exclusively Defense-Oriented" Policy” (専守防衛 [jp]) and 55% support raising defense spending.1
These poll numbers alone do not mean that a new consensus has formed. Rather, we should think of it as a permissive condition for elites — particularly the more hawkish members of the LDP — to push for a new consensus through bargaining with other elites. There will be conflict. Komeito leader Yamaguchi Natsuo, for example, has repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining the Exclusively Defense-Oriented Policy. The Ministry of Finance has voiced and will continue to voice skepticism about defense spending plans and will likely try to limit the pace and scale of spending increases.2 But in the current environment, with public opinion favorable to the hawks, the burden of proof will be on defenders of the status quo to show why Japan does not need to change. And, with the public still strongly behind him — the Kishida government’s net approval was +32 in the NHK poll (55% approval, 23% disapproval) — and the LDP poised to win comfortably in the upper house elections in July, Kishida could have a lot of political capital to spend to make these changes stick.
Farewell to Nakayama Toshihiro
It is hard to describe the shock that greeted news that Keio University Professor Nakayama Toshihiro had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on 1 May, at age 55. In recent years, Nakayama had become perhaps Japan’s leading expert of American politics, an indispensable guide to the turbulence of the Trump years and their aftermath.
I had the fortune to meet him regularly, and was always touched by his good cheer and his keen intelligence. Of course, it was also hard not to come away impressed by his extraordinary fashion sense. He was the best-dressed person in every room he entered. You can read an interview with him about his style here (jp).
Most importantly, I was always impressed at the depth of his knowledge and love for the United States. He had lived and traveled in parts of my own country that I have yet to see, and as a result, he had few illusions about American politics. His voice was essential at a time when it was imperative for Japanese to have a more nuanced understanding of American politics, and it is especially unfortunate for Japan to lose so capable an explainer of American politics ahead of two especially critical elections, when his insights would have been all the more invaluable.
My condolences to his family, his friends, and his colleagues in Japan and around the world.
In Seoul for President Yoon Seok-youl’s inauguration, Foreign Minister Hayashi announces (jp) that the two governments have agreed to refrain from measures that would worsen relations…Not for the first time, Abe effectively says that the Bank of Japan is monetizing the Japanese government’s debt, referring (jp) to the central bank as a “subsidiary” of the government…LDP Secretary-General Motegi Toshimitsu says (jp) that the House of Councillors election will likely be on 10 July…Deputies met (jp) in Washington on 6 May to coordinate plans for a first meeting of a U.S.-Japan “Economic 2+2” ministerial featuring the U.S. secretaries of state and commerce and the Japanese ministers of foreign affairs and economy, trade, and industry…A look at the challenges (jp) facing Kōno Tarō as he weighs another bid for the LDP’s leadership in the future.
I will feature one of my own this time. After Elon Musk offered his thoughts on Japan’s demographics, I said the following:
Apparently this struck a chord, because it wound up being quoted by Reuters. Of course my tweet has a typo.
Here is how the Ministry of Defense defines the Exclusively Defense-Oriented Policy:
The exclusively defense-oriented policy means that defensive force is used only in the event of an attack, that the extent of the use of defensive force is kept to the minimum necessary for self-defense, and that the defense capabilities to be possessed and maintained by Japan are limited to the minimum necessary for self-defense. The policy including these matters refers to the posture of a passive defense strategy in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution.