By Jiro Yamaguchi, Hosei University professor of law
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan gives a press briefing at his residence on Jan. 16 after passing national defense measures. (Yonhap)
We welcomed a new year without seeing the end of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although blessings are exchanged as New Year’s greetings — “Wishing good tidings in the new year” — many Japanese people in 2023 are anxious about both national security and the economy.
Anxiety that China may attack Taiwan, much like how Russia invaded Ukraine, has become the grounds on which Japan is building its national defense. On Dec. 16, the Fumio Kishida administration decided to revise Japan’s National Security Strategy by increasing defense spending by two times over the next five years, making it account for 2% of GDP, and proposed to allow the country to attack enemy bases preemptively by increasing its counterstrike capabilities.
The public is mostly in favor of strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities. According to the results of an opinion poll conducted by the Nikkei newspaper in December, 55% of respondents said that they support the strengthening of defense capabilities, 19 points higher than those who opposed it (36%).
There have been no specific discussions about what equipment — i.e., weapons — will be bought with the doubled defense spending, or how the formation of the Self-Defense Forces will change. With people feeling a vague sense of anxiety as tensions rise in East Asia, a large amount of defense costs will feel like a “talisman” of sorts that will keep one safe.
If citizens are genuinely concerned about national security and think that the strengthening of defense capabilities is a problem that is very much about their welfare, a national consensus won’t be difficult to reach on the issue of raising funds. However, discussions on how to raise funds to increase defense spending are likely to roil opinion.
According to a poll conducted earlier this month by Japanese private broadcaster TBS, 39% of respondents were in favor of increasing defense costs while 48% opposed it. Contrary to the Nikkei’s survey, the share of those opposed to the measure outpaced the share of those in favor by more than 10 points.
These numbers appear to be in response to the government and the ruling party’s decision to raise 1 trillion yen by raising taxes. In the same poll, 71% of respondents stated that they opposed the increase in taxes for defense spending. Only 22% approved.
Seeing how public opinion on Japan’s defense policy is shifting, it seems difficult to have a cool-headed discussion on these policies that lie on the horizon. Public cooperation is a key factor in politics, as people need to come together to solve common difficulties or tasks that they all face.
Japanese citizens currently face many difficult problems, such as the country’s rapid decline in population, economic downturn, delay in the development of science and technology, and deterioration of national safety.
On the other hand, Japan’s fiscal deficit is the worst among advanced countries, exceeding twice its GDP. In addition, as interest rates on government bonds began to rise at the end of last year, there are signs showing that the Bank of Japan’s policy of purchasing government bonds and inducing low-interest rates has reached its limit. The days of freely issuing government bonds will soon be over.
Feeling anxious about the future is a natural way of thinking for humans. However, neglecting to take care of tasks that should be addressed will only lead to Japan’s downfall. Population decline and economic stagnation have their causes. Right now, Japan needs decision-making capabilities to accurately recognize causes of instability, weigh the costs and effects, and invest in policies that have been agreed upon.
One of Japan’s old haikus goes as follows: “At a glance, a ghost, / but a lingering gaze shows / just a common reed.” That is, in order to identify what scares us, we need to keep our minds sharp.
Japan’s policy is one that ignores the importance of knowledge and culture and focuses on fearmongering without having any solid justification. The government is trying to take advantage of this unstable atmosphere to pursue policies that seem ineffective.
If one looks at the history of democracy, opposition to tax increases served as an opportunity to expand democracy. The opposition to the tax hike for national defense can be thought of as healthy public opinion. However, it is not certain whether this will be enough to provide a breakthrough for democracy.
Now we are being questioned about what sort of society we want to leave our young people and children, and if we are absolutely ready to pay the price for it.
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