Japan's Defense Agency changes name and reality
By Richard Halloran
The Taipei Times
Monday, Jan 08, 2007, Page 9
`The only thing one director-general of the agency was able to accomplish was to have a military band parade in his hometown.'
Tomorrow the Japan Defense Agency becomes the Japan Ministry of Defense in a change that seems small on the surface but is substantial in its reality.
In Japanese, the new name requires changing only one ideograph, from cho to sho. In romanized Japanese, it is but one letter. And in American English, most people would not see much difference between "agency" and "ministry."
In a nation often driven by symbols, however, this shift reflects a newly assertive Japan that some Japanese say seeks to be a "normal" country. Moreover, it responds to a perceived threat from North Korea and reflects Japanese anxiety over potential threats from China.
The Diet, Japan's legislature, authorized the revision last month with surprising little opposition, given the pacifist stance of leftwing parties in the past. The Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, said the transition to the Ministry of Defense "demonstrates both domestically and internationally the maturity of Japanese democracy."
He contended the change showed "our confidence in civilian control. It also sends a signal that Japan is prepared to contribute even more to the international community and that it will take on its role responsibly."
In practical politics, the director-general of the Defense Agency becomes the minister of defense and a member of the Cabinet that presides over the executive branch of Tokyo's government. That Cabinet of a dozen ministers is roughly the equivalent of the US presidency, a fact often overlooked outside of Japan.
Until now, the head of the defense agency was something of a political non-entity. Sometime in the past, the only thing one director-general was able to accomplish was to have a military band parade in his hometown.
On becoming a full-fledged member of the Cabinet, the defense minister will have more say about his ministry's budget than in the past, when it was fashioned largely by bureaucrats from the prime minister's office and the Finance Ministry. For decades, however, Japan has limited its military spending to one percent of gross national product and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.
Internationally, in dealing with the US secretary of defense or top defense officials of other nations, the Japanese defense minister will be treated now "as an equal governmental chief in both name and reality," says Tokyo's white paper on defense, published last year. In prestige-conscious Japan, this counts.
Japan's Self-Defense Forces, however, will keep their names, both in Japanese and in translation. The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force will not become the Japanese Army and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force will not become the Japanese Navy.
At least not yet -- some senior retired officers have been quietly lobbying for those names to be revised, too.
The birth of Japan's Defense Ministry is part of a plan to improve Japan's security. Abe says he wants to amend Article IX of the Constitution, under which Japan has renounced force as an instrument of national power. It has been at the heart of Japanese pacifism for 60 years -- a revision would constitutionally permit Japan to use military force to protect its interests.
The prime minister has also said Japan needs a national security council patterned on that in Washington and should form an agency to gather and analyze intelligence. Today, the Japanese prime minister has only a small research office to provide analyses of events and trends abroad.
The North Koreans and Chinese have criticized the elevation of the defense ministry. The North Korean Central News Agency, controlled by the government in Pyongyang, said that turning the defense agency into a ministry was intended to realize Japan's "militarist ambition for overseas expansion."
Similarly, an official Chinese newspaper, the People's Daily, contended the shift reflected "a change in nature" for Japan's defense establishment as it "clears barriers for the Japanese armed forces on their way of going beyond self-defense."
What the North Koreans and Chinese fail to realize is that their belligerence toward Japan has accelerated a Japanese revision in their thinking on military power and caused Tokyo to strengthen its defense ties with the US as the US realigns its forces in Asia.
In the normal course of events, Japan would most likely have gradually shed its postwar pacifism in favor of a more assertive posture. The North Koreans and Chinese, however, have brought that day forward, which would not seem to be in their own best interests.
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
Peace and freedom Editor's note: After the July 4, 2006 multiple long-range missile tests by North Korea, Japan finally decided there was an urgent need to revise the decades-long post World War II pacifist attitudes of Japan. North Korea's nuclear test galvanized that belief. The government of Japan has discussed the creation of its own nuclear weapon effort (and decided against such a move) but Japan has "ramped up" its missile defense program significantly. This name change is highly symbolic of a new, more formidible, more militarily aware and watchful Japan.