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COMMENTARY (C07-2)

Putting the Cart Before the Horse: Does Abe have public support for his “proactive diplomacy”?

By Weston S. Konishi
February 12, 2007

Even while his approval ratings drop at home, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s rhetoric has been flying high abroad. While addressing NATO Council members in Brussels on January 12, the prime minister announced a new “proactive diplomacy” for Japan, based on fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Even more remarkable was Abe’s assertion that “Japanese will no longer shy away from carrying out overseas activities involving the SDF [Self-Defense Forces], if it is for the sake of international peace and stability.” Reinforcing this point, the prime minister added that: “My country is ready to meet the world’s rising expectations for our enhanced role in the international community.”

These are encouraging words for those who want Japan to take a more assertive role on the world stage, and Abe deserves credit for outlining a bold—if still vague—vision for his country. With any luck, though, NATO leaders did not take Abe’s words at face value; for the prime minister grossly exaggerated Japan’s readiness to act on his vision. Japan may well be on the path toward a more active international role, but the prime minister’s ambitious foreign policy agenda will require domestic support that simply does not yet exist. Until a clearer public consensus emerges in Japan it is risky for the prime minister to plant the perception that it has.

One need look no further than the current system for approving SDF deployments to see that the option of “shying away” from overseas missions is built into Japan’s decision-making process. Under the current system, a Special Measures Law must be passed by the Diet every time the prime minister requests a dispatch of SDF troops—just as was the case when Japan deployed SDF vessels to the Indian Ocean in 2002 and ground troops to southern Iraq in 2003.

Although the Special Measures Laws are necessary in the absence of any change in Japan’s constitutional limitations on the exercise of collective self-defense, the ad hoc nature of the special legislation lends itself to unpredictable outcomes. Without a general law covering SDF dispatches for humanitarian or rear area support operations, there is no assurance that Tokyo can deploy forces as international emergencies arise.

It is true that the Abe administration is pushing for a “permanent” law to approve overseas SDF missions, but that legislation is a long way off, if it ever comes to fruition. Meanwhile, given the tenuous public support for the SDF deployment to Iraq (according to most polls taken in 2003, support for the mission never exceeded the 30 percent range), there is by no means a mandate from the Japanese people to dispatch SDF troops as liberally as Abe suggests.

Such a mandate is exactly what the prime minister needs if Japan is to embark on expanded overseas missions. Yet, according to a Cabinet Office poll conducted last October [see poll 06-17 in the Mansfield Database], only 25 percent of Japanese respondents want their country to take a more active role in Peace Keeping Operations, humanitarian assistance and other “contributions to international society.” Sixty-five percent of those polled believe Japan’s contributions should either be kept at the current level or held at a “minimal level.”

What about public support for a “proactive diplomacy” promoting fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law (principles that were also invoked recently by Foreign Minister Aso Taro in his call for Japan to lead an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” among like-minded nations)? According to the same Cabinet Office poll [poll 06-17], just 20 percent of Japanese believe that protecting universal values such as freedom, democracy and human rights should be a role for Japan in the international arena.

The prime minister’s claim that “Japanese will no longer shy away” from enhanced international security responsibilities rings hollow considering statistics like these. Indeed, the very items that Abe now promises to the international community—readily deploying SDF missions abroad; actively promoting universal values; and championing the creation of “arcs”, “spheres” or other geopolitical formations—are ideas that the Japanese public has not yet signed onto.

Until some degree of public consensus on these points emerges, Abe should avoid promising the world more than Japan can deliver. The danger is if Abe succeeds in convincing other leaders about Japan’s ability to contribute more to security without convincing his own people first. If that is the case, then it is a set up for a potential disaster, especially if Japan fails to meet international expectations as future crises erupt.

Having made the case for a more active foreign policy while on the road, Abe should now devote his energies to making the case back home. With Abe’s approval ratings slumping below 50 percent, that task may be impossible to achieve.

Weston S. Konishi is director of programs at the Mansfield Foundation in Washington, DC. A version of this article appeared in The Daily Yomiuri in February 2007.

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