It's not too late for Japan to benefit from the improvement in policy direction and coherence that the National Security Council seems certain to bring
Shinzo Abe’s second term as Japan’s Prime Minister began with a laser-like focus on economic revitalization. That policy, almost instantly dubbed “Abenomics", comprises what have been called the three “arrows": bold monetary policy, an expansionary fiscal stance, and structural reforms to stimulate private investment. Hosting the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 has added a fourth arrow to this quiver in the form of increased infrastructure investment and tourism revenue in the years up to the games.
To be sure, after 15 years of deflationary recession, revitalization of the Japanese economy remains far from complete. Nonetheless, the effects of Abe’s reforms are becoming visible in areas such as equity prices and exchange rates.
But Abe also confronts a security environment in Asia that is every bit as brittle as Japan’s economy was before his government took office last December. Indeed, he confronted many of the same issues during his first administration seven years ago. His efforts back then were halted by his own resignation, and he is now making a second attempt to establish a national security governance system to meet Japan’s needs—and those of its allies—in 21st century Asia.
In a speech to a plenary session of the lower house of Japan’s Diet on 25 October, Abe emphasized that, given the current security situation in Asia, “It is essential to strengthen command functions for implementing the Prime Minister’s national security policy." Now that split control of the Diet’s upper and lower houses has been resolved, with Abe’s Liberal Democrats in strong control of both chambers, a Bill to modernize Japan’s national security governance is certain to pass.
The Bill that Abe has submitted aims to establish a Japanese National Security Council (NSC), based on lessons from the successes and failures of similar institutions in other countries, such as NSC in the US. The Security Council of Japan—something of a stopgap measure created to provide advice from relevant cabinet members to the Prime Minister in times of crisis—will now be reorganized as a formal institution.
The new NSC’s membership will be limited to the Prime Minister, the cabinet secretary, and the foreign and defence ministers, with relevant ministers added on an ad hoc basis. A permanent National Security Secretariat, headed by a person with abundant diplomatic experience, will be established in the Prime Minister’s office, with 60 security specialists from various fields laying the policy groundwork for medium and long-term national security strategy. This strategy will then be reflected in guidelines issued to Japan’s defence bodies and diplomats.
Japan, like other countries, has faced jurisdictional disputes among foreign policy, defence, and police agencies that have hindered the aggregation and analysis of intelligence information. But, with the creation of NSC, each ministry and agency will report important national security information to the new secretariat, which will then carry out integrated analysis and issue reports to the Prime Minister and others.
Of course, as in other countries, bureaucracies are creatures of habit. As we can already see, it will not be easy to overcome the obstacles posed by vertically integrated ministries and agencies. Institutionalization will take time—and the importance of its success cannot be understated.
For example, the new NSC will be responsible for sharing intelligence with other countries, including the US, Japan’s most important ally. As a result, ensuring the protection of information will be a key issue, particularly given the old habit of leaking security information to the press.
That is why the Diet is also considering a Bill on the protection of classified information that would impose harsher punishment on government officials who leak secrets, particularly those concerning national security. The trauma of gag laws that were imposed on the press before and during World War II resulted in the elimination of all restraints afterwards, which had the effect of making Japan a spy’s paradise, with insufficient counterintelligence measures and poor secrecy.
Moreover, the long decades of peace since 1945 have served to lower awareness among politicians of the need for confidentiality. For example, Japanese newspapers always report when, where, and with whom the Prime Minister met for dinner in the following day’s editions.
In contrast to the US system of presidential government, Japan has a parliamentary form of government. Yet the goals of national security and crisis management are the same in both systems—indeed, one of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s first acts when he came to power was to establish an NSC to improve coordination of policymaking. Although the establishment of the Japanese NSC is long overdue, it is not too late for Japan to benefit from the improvement in policy direction and coherence that it seems certain to bring.