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The Phantom Menace

Illegal DigSNA (Tokyo) — Once again today Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared it. As the House of Councillors begins its deliberations on the Legislation for Peace and Security, the people are told that the passage of these bills is necessary and must be done now—in this Diet session. There is no alternative. Japan’s national security is now under threat like no other time in the postwar period.

In Abe’s own words, “Our national security environment has become stringent. No country can protect itself on its own.”

This follows the publication last week of the annual “Defense of Japan” report which also painted a dire picture of the nation’s security environment: “China, particularly over maritime issues, continues to act in an assertive manner, including coercive attempts at changing the status quo, and is poised to fulfill its unilateral demands without compromise.”

Several media reports revealed that the weeklong delay in issuing the “Defense of Japan” report was caused by Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers who found the language used by the Defense Ministry in the original draft to be too soft, and they demanded additional accusations and that harsher expressions be used vis-a-vis China.

The response of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs wasn’t far off the mark: “The new defense white paper of Japan once again ignores facts, makes irresponsible remarks on China’s normal military growth and maritime activities, deliberately plays up the ‘China threat,’ and stirs up tensions.”

Considering the direct intervention of ruling party lawmakers, and the fact that their intervention came in the context of falling approval ratings for the government after the security bills were rammed through the House of Representatives, the evidence is clear that Japanese hawks are quite deliberately trying to hype the atmosphere of “threat” and then exploit it to reduce Japanese public opposition to the Legislation for Peace and Security.

For the hawks—both in Tokyo and in Washington—this kind of manipulation of public fears is fully justified because, according to their ideology, the China threat is real and the public is simply naive about the hard realities. The Japanese people need to be scared for their own good.

If anyone should point out that there’s also quite a bit of self-interest built into the comfortable ideological assumptions of the hawks, then this can be easily dismissed. The fact that generals want medals, industrialists want orders, universities want military research budgets, journalists want headlines, and politicians want the rush of power and glory clearly has nothing to do with it. All one needs to know is that the enemy is wicked and it was they who forced conflict upon us through their aggressive behavior.

Is Japan’s “security environment” really worse now than at any time since 1945? Is China a burgeoning military threat to Japan?

Well… does any rational person really believe that landing craft filled with Chinese Marines are going to assault the shores of Kyushu? Is the Chinese regime going to send missiles raining down over the skies of Tokyo? These are enormously farfetched scenarios, either now or in the foreseeable future.

If the “stringent” security environment that Abe refers to is really all about the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, then who really cares? It makes not a whit of difference to the actual lives of the citizens in either country whose flag flies over the goats that inhabit those maritime rocks.

The only reason why ownership of such unpopulated islands wasn’t settled decades or centuries ago is precisely because they weren’t previously deemed to be of sufficient value to worry about. Yes, we now have the added concern of oil, gas, or other natural resources, but the economic value of what is lost getting into a political confrontation over the islands almost certainly far exceeds the value of what ownership of them will produce.

The “Chinese invasion” that Japan really ought to be contemplating is the one assaulting the Ginza district of Tokyo each and every day. Busload upon busload of Chinese tourists—in numbers never seen before—are scouring the shops and the pharmacies for products to take back home.

Whatever nationalist rage that some Chinese may feel about Japan due to early 20th century history, they also quite clearly have a sneaking admiration for the Japanese. They want to come to these islands, see the major sights, and then go home with bagloads of eye drops, adhesive bandages, and throat lozenges.

What Japan can most usefully do if they feel threatened by a rising China is to do more business with them, to make sure that their economies are increasingly interdependent, to give the Chinese a big stake in the future prosperity of Japan, and ultimately to try to narrow the gulf of history and culture that separates them.

Ironically, it is the same people like Shinzo Abe who conjure the phantom menace of the China threat, and who fully believe that they are the hard-eyed “realists” protecting the nation, who put Japan in greater jeopardy. Japan’s future security does not rely on an arms race with Beijing or in reviving the heroic spirit of self-sacrifice among the young. Rather, it relies on creating a community of mutual interest with its continental neighbors.

On that most important dimension of Japan’s future security, the Abe administration has been an utter failure.

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