The larger research project that took me to Japan considers the role of legislatures in democratic civil-military relations: Do parliamentarians play a significant role in overseeing the armed forces? Japan is a particularly interesting case since the politics of defense are at once so controversial and so marginalized. The legacies of World War II, including much unresolved bitterness towards Japan by most of its neighbors, combined with the increased threats of the present day (i.e., North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the rise of China) make the role, even the existence, of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) an item of national debate. Article 9 of Japan’s constitution prohibits the country from having a military, yet the SDF is one of the more advanced armed forces in the world. The constitutional questions about whether the SDF should exist and whether Article 9 should be revised dominate most discussions among parliamentarians about what the SDF should be and what it should do, crowding out crowd out any discussion of what the SDF is and what it is actually doing in the present day. Consequently, oversight of the strategy, doctrines, force structure, and operations of Japan’s military is the executive, where, surprisingly, perhaps the most attentive and critical actor is the Ministry of Finance.
Japan is not alone in having parliamentarians who are largely disinterested and uninformed about the armed forces. Coming from Canada, I find much in common: the Diet and Canada’s Parliament lack security clearances, and the politicians within these two entities lack incentives to spend much time on military matters. When defense matters are raised in Japan, the debate has almost entirely focused on whether or not the SDF is constitutional. When the minister of defense appears before the Diet’s committees, much of the questioning is more a game of trivia pursuit to embarrass the minister than a serious investigation of what the SDF is doing: “What are the names of the ships based in Djibouti?”
As a result, in Japan (and in many other countries), overseeing the military is almost entirely an executive responsibility, involving the prime minister, the minister of defense, and the Ministry of Defense (MoD). A key difference between Japan and many other democracies is that Japan goes through defense ministers about as quickly as kids go through shoes. The average minister of defense lasts for less than a year. Since those who hold this position rarely start with any expertise on defense matters, the civilian most responsible for overseeing the SDF is, alas, often poorly equipped.
While the idea of the bureaucrats running the government is an old story in Japan, it remains particularly relevant for defense matters. Since the parliamentarians are not focused on these issues and the minister of defense is usually an amateur, the bureaucrats are in a strong position to shape defense policy. A key question I asked in my interviews of former defense ministers, parliamentarians, MoD staff, and others in 2016 and 2017 (thanks to the Abe Fellowship Program) is whether the MoD served as overseer of the SDF or instead as a cheerleader or advocate, attempting to protect the SDF from the Diet and outside forces. In general, I was told that the MoD saw its role as protector, not overseer.
So, who says no to the SDF? Who makes sure that the SDF is operating efficiently, effectively, and within the intent of the civilian leadership? There are three answers to these questions, and none of them are reassuring: the prime minister, the ministry of finance, or no one. Ultimately, it is Prime Minister Abe’s job to oversee the SDF, as he has more experience than any of his temporary ministers of defense. However, Abe has many responsibilities demanding his time so he cannot devote sufficient attention to whether the SDF is developing the correct plans and procuring the right equipment. The Ministry of Finance has some sway, as it tries to save money. This might make procurement less wasteful, but does not help with the larger issues on what to prioritize. The good news is that the SDF is not inclined to run amok and engage in behaviors that risk Japanese lives—the concern is not about a repeat of the 1930s. The bad news is that without adequate oversight, bureaucratic politics may drive Japan’s defense planning rather than what is best for Japan’s defense.
One single statistic surprised me in my research that raises many questions about the SDF: 50 percent of the defense budget goes to the Ground Self-Defense Force. Given Japan’s geostrategic situation, one would expect that the majority of funds would be designated for its navy and air force, with the least amount directed toward its army. However, in my interviews in Japan, I did not hear of anyone from the government, the media, or the public at large raising questions about spending priorities. The question is always about whether to reach or breach Japan’s 1 percent GDP limit on defense spending, not how the money is spent and how that relates to force structure.
Would having a more interested, engaged, and informed parliament make a difference? That is one of the questions my larger project investigates, and the answer is unclear. It is relatively apparent that few actors are “minding the store” in terms of paying attention to what the SDF is doing, what it is planning, and whether it is prepared to deal with the threats from North Korea and China. In the past, focusing only on the constitutional issues was a luxury made possible by both the sturdiness of the American commitment to Japan’s defense and the relative weakness of neighboring countries. Now, the threats are more severe and the American commitment is in doubt in the Age of Trump. Therefore, Japanese decision-makers both inside and outside of the Diet need to focus more on the strategic and operational questions—how to prepare for war and to deter adversaries—and less on whether the SDF should exist.