Abe at the Crossroads: ISIS, Yoshida, and Japan’s Foreign Policy Future

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pictured on October 6, 2013 (Global Panorama, courtesy APEC 2013, Flickr Commons) Over the past several weeks, the Japanese media has given extraordinary coverage to the recent kidnapping and brutal murder of Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto by members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Some newspapers even issued extras after the Japanese government confirmed that Kenji Goto was beheaded. In the immediate term, the murders will likely not have an impact on Japan’s foreign policy. In the longer view, however, the incident may well become the defining moment for both the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and for postwar Japanese politics writ large. To understand why, we have to take a deeper look at what Abe—and especially his foreign policy—has been trying to achieve, who his opponents are, and how they have been criticizing his foreign policy.

Since he was reelected as prime minister in 2012, Shinzo Abe has pursued a foreign policy based on respect for the rule of law and universal human rights. Abe’s policies challenge the “Yoshida Doctrine,” postwar Japan’s longstanding political regime that laid the foundation for the country’s “comfort culture” of consumerism and affluence. Yoshida Shigeru, who served as prime minister between 1948 and 1954, advocated that Japan should leave global and regional political and military matters to the United States and focus exclusively on economics. On January 17, continuing his consistent support for human and civil rights, Abe announced in Cairo that Japan would provide $200 million to Middle Eastern countries in non-military humanitarian relief for refugees. After the murder of Yukawa and Goto by ISIS, it was hardly surprising when Abe announced that Japan would increase its humanitarian aid commitments to those fighting the terrorist group.

In contravention of Yoshida and in recognition of this new global environment, Abe and his supporters have called for Japan to become a “normal nation.” By that they mean that Japan should have not only full autonomy over its foreign affairs but also a military that operates no differently from that of any other major democratic country, much like Germany and France. Abe also believes that the Japanese people should look beyond themselves and their own comforts in order to contribute to the welfare of people in other countries, even at the cost of human and financial suffering. In fact, he owes his political career to his proactive leadership on the rachi mondai—the practice of North Korean agents abducting Japanese citizens between the late 1970s and 1980s. At the time, no other politician in Japan was willing to confront the issue. Before North Korea acknowledged some of the abductions, many had denied that the whole matter was anything but Cold War-era anti-communist myth. Abe’s tougher stance on the issue, beginning during his service in the Diet in the 1990s, is credited with securing the permanent freedom of the five Japanese provisionally released by North Korea, and later their families as well. His hardline tactics were wildly popular with the Japanese public, and led directly to his appointment as secretary general of the LDP in 2003. After his election as prime minister in 2006, his cabinet established a Committee on the Abduction Issue.

But despite Abe’s opposition, the Yoshida Doctrine lives on. Many former politicians belonging to Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), most of whom switched to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and other splinter parties in the mid-1990s, along with the prominent Asahi newspaper, continue to support it. The DPJ, which houses many of the Yoshida Doctrine’s defenders, is desperately trying to regain public support in order to return to power. It is therefore taking a cautious approach to directly criticizing Abe’s policies, which remain fairly popular among voters. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) have been most vocally opposed to Abe’s foreign policy, often smearing the prime minister with all manner of wild accusations. JCP Representative Saori Ikeuchi, for example, recently tweeted that the Abe government “gives little value to human lives” and that “what’s really outrageous is the continuation of the Abe government [rather than the terrorist acts of ISIS].” Party head Kazuo Shii soon rebuked her and her tweet was removed.

The problem for Japan’s opposition parties is that a broad spectrum of voters supports how Abe handled the ISIS hostage crisis. A January 27 joint Sankei newspaper and Fuji News Network poll found that, while 66.5 percent of voters who support Abe’s LDP believe that he has done enough in response to the hostage crisis, supporters of other parties showed similar or even higher levels of support. The poll found that 77.2 percent of Ishin Party supporters and 52.7 percent of DPJ supporters were satisfied with Abe’s handling of the crisis. Fully 56.8 percent of Communist Party supporters felt the same. Expressing the lowest approval of Abe’s response to the terrorist incident were supporters of the SDP (16.7 percent) and Ichiro Ozawa’s “People’s Life Party” (33.3 percent)

Ozawa is, in fact, one of the most resourceful and dangerous of politicians in Japan today. Resisting Abe’s efforts to lead Japan into a fight against terrorism, Ozawa has tried to push the country into a new pan-Asianism centered on the rise of China. Already infamous for his 2009 declaration that Christianity is an intolerant religion, Ozawa appeared on a NHK television program on January 25, where he took a sympathetic attitude toward ISIS terrorists. He argued that Prime Minster Abe’s $200 million humanitarian aid program for Middle East refugees was “tantamount to a declaration of war against the Islamic State,” concluding that “it can’t be helped if they now consider Japan also to be one of their enemies.”

While Ozawa’s views sound extreme, they have influential supporters. Mushakoji Kinhide, a former vice-rector of the United Nations University, is a good example. One of Japan’s leading experts on international affairs, Mushakoji has argued that Japan must stand alongside “the Islamic world” in a joint effort to overcome Western modernity. He has even shown an accommodating attitude toward terrorism by suggesting that the current Islamist terrorists share the same psychology as the kamikaze pilots of World War II Japan. Lest one dismiss him as merely eccentric—and perhaps, at 86, senile—the Asahi newspaper recently printed a similar opinion just before the hostage situation erupted. A column in the January 13 evening edition of the paper compared the tactics of today’s “extremists” to those of “a certain country” that, seventy years ago, also extolled the use of human bombs as part of its Special Attack Force.

Abe has brought postwar Japan to a watershed moment. Will Japanese society accept his challenge, shed the Yoshida Doctrine’s culture of comfort, and accept the costs of their responsibilities to the global community? Or will the brutal murder of Yukawa and Goto drive home the painful costs of engaging in the global War on Terror and lead the country to withdraw from global commitments and seek solace in a revised form of the Yoshida Doctrine? Both questions have significant ramifications for Japan’s future regional and global role (and the latter bears particularly on an emboldened China’s continuing aggression in the Asia-Pacific).

One result of Abe’s push, however, is less debatable. The old Yoshida Doctrine is clearly no longer an option for Japan. The country must choose between either Abe or Ozawa—either join the global commitment to universal human rights, or withdraw into Pan-Asian regionalism and cultural relativism. While none may be able to predict which path the country will follow, the decision will represent a momentous choice not only for the Japanese people but for the world as well. And either way, Japan will not be the same.