Japan’s Gray-Haired Pacifism

It’s a hot summer in Japan. The public is outraged by a set of security bills proposing to overhaul the country’s postwar defense policy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is sweating over a record dip in his approval ratings.

Despite several television and radio appearances, Mr. Abe has not managed to convince Japanese people that these reforms are necessary. Anti-militarist sentiment is stronger than ever, with protests not seen since the 1960s, when students demonstrated against the United States-Japan security treaty. The backlash is partly due to the government’s weak attempts to explain that Mr. Abe’s new defense policy is not the radical departure it appears to be, and to the bills’ having been rushed and rammed through the lower house of Parliament. Mostly, however, the resistance is the result of the country’s demographics, particularly its aging population.

Mr. Abe’s proposed bills are no aberration; they are an adjustment intended to help Japan better meet the demands of the post-Cold War security environment, fortify the United States-Japan alliance and strengthen deterrence against an increasingly assertive China. They are a corrective to the limitations of Japan’s resolutely passive form of pacifism, which were exposed during the Gulf War of 1990-1991, when Japan — forbidden by its own laws from sending any troops to support the United States-led coalition — was reduced to contributing only through checkbook diplomacy. After that, it seemed clear to many Japanese defense analysts and members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (L.D.P.) that Japan needed to develop its capacity to engage in collective self-defense and expand the overseas activities of its Self-Defense Forces (S.D.F.).

Support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s security bills is lowest among Japan’s pensioners. Credit Issei Kato/Reuters
Support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s security bills is lowest among Japan’s pensioners. Credit Issei Kato/Reuters

Yet Mr. Abe has failed to explain the merits of his policies, and the need to shift to what he calls “proactive pacifism,” apparently because he has underestimated the weight of demography and overestimated his popularity among the elderly, traditional supporters of the L.D.P.

The population of Japan, now under 127 million, has been in rapid decline since peaking in 2008. The United Nations estimates it will drop to about 83 million by 2100. According to a recent study by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, the Tokyo-based think tank that I chair, the number by then could be as low as 50 million — the same as it was a century ago.

As Japan’s population shrinks, it is also aging. Japan has one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and so a very high proportion of elderly people. Japanese over the age of 65 account for more than 26 percent of the total population today, and are expected to account for nearly 40 percent by 2050.

These demographics have bred a kind of gray-haired pacifism. Support for Mr. Abe’s security bills is lowest among Japan’s pensioners, with only 19 percent of that group in favor of them, according to details of a recent poll that I obtained from the daily Asahi Shimbun. For that older generation, Japan’s pacifism is a core part of the nation’s identity, a warrant of its stability and postwar prosperity. To deviate from it could jeopardize the country’s accomplishments and future prospects.

The elderly are Japan’s most powerful constituency. Reflecting this, the national budget is heavily weighted in their favor. Social security spending, health care and nursing for the aged account for 33 percent of the national budget — surpassing any other expense category. Defense spending claims little more than 5 percent of the national budget, or about 1 percent of G.D.P. Yet some groups of pensioners have taken to the streets claiming that the government has been trying to redirect funds away from social security toward defense.

Japan’s low fertility rate — at just 1.4 children per woman — further complicates the debate on national security. The labor force is shrinking, and the competition for new hires is increasingly fierce across sectors. A retired top-ranking officer told me that recruiting male high-school graduates was the S.D.F.’s biggest challenge because it competes for candidates from the same pool as do the police and the fire departments. In a desperate effort to attract millennials, the S.D.F. is turning to pop culture, featuring a celebrity model and anime characters in its latest recruitment campaign.

Many Japanese have favorable views of the S.D.F., especially after its assistance during the 2011 earthquake and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. But the older generations are reluctant to see young Japanese recruited into the force if its activities are expanded as the security bills provide: Then, the young could be dispatched overseas and exposed to greater physical dangers than before or put at risk of getting entangled in a United States-led war. This nation of few children treats them as precious.

These structural, demographic constraints are something of a blind spot for Mr. Abe. Instead of taking care to reassure the population that his proposals are less controversial than they appear to be, Mr. Abe seems to have taken for granted the support of the elderly, who have historically voted for the L.D.P.. Hence now the impassioned backlash from them.

The security bills may nonetheless become law soon. After being pushed through the lower house of Parliament, this summer they will be voted on by the upper house, where the L.D.P.-led coalition holds a majority of seats. Even if the bills do pass, however, Mr. Abe’s new defense policy may backfire. He has already alienated the elderly, arguably his single-most important constituency. Continued domestic pressure could also hamper Japan’s ability to fulfill any expanded defense duties it may undertake under the new laws — creating an expectation gap between its new commitments to, say, the United States and its contributions on the ground. This could strain United States-Japan relations just as Mr. Abe is seeking to strengthen them.

For Japan’s elderly, some of whom remember World War II firsthand, there is little time left to pass on to younger generations Japan’s postwar legacy of pacifism. For them, resisting Mr. Abe’s security bills is a matter of war and peace.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a think tank in Tokyo.

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