Narushige Michishita discusses pacifism and U.S.-Japan relations

Narushige Michishita was Senior Research Fellow at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies and recently held a talking tour around the U.S. to discuss U.S.-Japan relations and Japan’s defense needs. (Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser)

Japan is one of America’s closest allies. For decades it’s been home to several U.S. military bases and an important trade partner. However, as the Trump Administration engages in unpredictable diplomatic moves and an increasingly aggressive global trade war, the U.S.-Japan alliance has become more complex.

The Pacific Northwest has long played an important role in relations between the U.S. and Japan. Ports in Seattle and Tacoma have historically served as major gateways for goods flowing between the two countries. The Northwest is also home to a thriving Japanese-American community with deep roots.

In October, service members from both countries trained in Washington as part of the annual Rising Thunder exercise at the Yakima Training Center. Members of Nisei Veterans Committee  — a group for Japanese American veterans and their supporters — attended training as observers during a sniper competition and hosted several of the visiting Japanese soldiers at an annual luncheon in Seattle.

Japanese troops rarely venture far outside of Japan due to the country’s ostensibly pacifist constitution. The country doesn’t legally have a military, instead having “self-defense forces.” But tensions with China and North Korea have led some Japanese people to rethink how their nation interacts with the outside world. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is currently up for re-election, has suggested changing the Japanese constitution’s language around defense.

Changing attitudes in Japan could reshape the security landscape in the Pacific region.

The Seattle Globalist recent sat down with Narushige Michishita, a professor at the Tokyo based National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, to chat about the state of relations across the Pacific and Japan’s evolving role in world affairs.

Michishita is a respected policy expert. He has a Ph.D from Johns Hopkins University, was a Senior Research Fellow at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies and served as assistant counselor at the Japanese Government’s Cabinet Secretariat for Security and Crisis Management. He recently toured the United States where he also gave talks at UC San Diego, the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, the Japan House in Los Angeles, and went to San Francisco to visit colleagues at UC Berkley and Stanford.

His final stop was Seattle, where he gave a talk at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

[The following interview has been edited for length and clarity]

How has this current U.S. administration’s trade rhetoric concerning trade impacted defense relations with Japan?

That’s something that we would like to avoid  — the linking of the issues. We would like to de-link, but Trump’s approach, he tries to link everything.

I know that he put himself and the U.S. government in a better negotiating position. So, I mean, there is a limit to what we can do in dealing with the two issues separate.

But the good news is the fact that we are doing very well in terms of working closely together in terms of this policy. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we have a North Korea and a rising China — all kinds of beating up on its neighbors in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean. We have common challenges to face. So we are kind of almost forced to work together.

The defense issue kind of helps us alleviate what trade issue because Japan is buying so many weapons from the U.S. off the shelf. That’s one thing and that’s true, so that’s kind of alleviating the deficit. At this point of time, Japan is trying to minimize the negative consequences coming out of this by probably trying to offer some concessions with agricultural products. Because our center piece, the most important export item for Japan, is automobiles. We are trying to have no additional tariffs on automobiles.

So do you think the administration is out of touch on trade?

When Mr. Trump talks about a trade deficit, yeah, that’s true, and it is true that Japan is selling a lot things to the United States. But there is another factor that he might not mention too much, and that’s that the American people are benefitting from the imports — nice cars at relatively affordable prices.

But, I mean, he talks on about the deficit.

We’re not sure how much he’s saying is kind of part of his bargaining tactics. He’s coming out like, “gonna get ya! So what can you offer?”So, I don’t know how serious he is when he says “exchange rate, higher tariffs, more tariffs.” He has been talking about 25 percent tariff on cars.

I mean, if you are interested in buying Japanese cars, you suffer in a big way. It’s assessed that the price of one Japanese car would be $5,000 higher after the 25 percent tariff.

As far as what Trump has been saying, he’s not telling a lie, but he’s only telling part of the truth.

Could you talk about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s intentions to amend Article 9 of Japan’s constitution?

He is trying to make a little more substantial change to the constitution, especially in terms of Article 9, which says that Japan must not possess an Army, Navy, Air or Force. Because the constitution says that we don’t have Army, Navy, or Air Force  — we only have Ground Self Defense Force, Maritime Self Defense Force and Air Self Defense Force.

This is my personal opinion, I’m not representing the government here, but we are lying, right? We’re basically saying that these are not army, navy or air force. But they are army, navy, air force, right? We’re not only misleading the international community, but also the Japanese people, which is more serious.

We are misleading the Japanese people by using, let’s say, “interesting terms” when we talk about our armed forces. When we talk about infantry, we call it “Normal Unit,” when we talk about artillery unit, we call it “Special Unit,” and when we talk about engineer unit, we call it “Facility Unit.” And a lot of Japanese people don’t understand what those words really mean.

What Mr. Abe is trying to do is to talk about what we do more honestly. Let’s get real, let’s stop lying about what we do: we possess armed forces. Maybe we will not be able to change all the names into army, navy, air force. But it’s going to be the first step where we stop lying. Let’s change it to fit the constitution to the reality of it. That’s, I think, what we are going to do, what Abe is trying to do.

Some of Abe’s critics have suggested his intention is to increase militarization. Do you think that’s true?

Our objective is to maintain power in the region, to maintain peace and stability in the region, and if you call it “militarization” to strengthen our capabilities, then it’s going to be about militarization.

These are the largest spenders in defense: the U.S. comes in first place, which is good news for us, China comes in second place, Japan is now in eighth place, right? So at the current situation, China is spending more than four times on defense than Japan. That’s a fact.

In the past 10 years, U.S. defense spending has declined by 14 percent. China’s has increased by 110 percent. Japan’s has increased by 4.4 percent. So, you might be able to say that we are militarizing. We are increasing the military, right? So, if you call it militarization, we are militarizing. But then China is much more rapidly militarizing. So the question is, how can we maintain balance of power, and therefore peace, under these kind of circumstances?

Some people say Japan is moving away from pacifism toward militarism, and Mr. Abe is taking Japan away from pacifism toward militarism. But I have a different interpretation. In fact, Japan is moving away from isolationism toward internationalism. So, we have been saying that we are pacifists but as a professional defense policy specialist, I, unfortunately, think it’s a big lie. We have been lying.

Why? Because when we say “pacifist,” I ask, “So, what do you mean by pacifist or pacifism?” And I press the Japanese people, and I say “What would you like to achieve or what would you like to avoid?” and they say “Oh, we don’t want to get drawn into wars like the U.S. is fighting. We don’t want to get involved in these, messy, dirty wars.” So, that’s what they say.

They are not pacifists; what they are trying to do is to stay away from wars. They are not proactively seeking solutions  while there are hundreds of wars and difficulties and problems the world faces. So, is it pacifism? I would call it isolationism. Now, Mr. Abe’s much more proactive in engaging the rest of the world, especially other countries in the region, in the face of the rise of Korea and the rise China.

The rise of China is fine, but sometimes China engages in irresponsible actions with neighbors and pushes its way. And when it happens we say ‘No, you can’t do it.’ In order to discourage China from doing this, we need to be strong enough. So I think we are trying to do better and trying to be a little more proactive.

With the diplomacy between North and South Korea, how has that changed Japan’s feelings toward North Korea?

Well, Japan’s feelings toward North Korea have not changed too much, because we still don’t really trust North Korea. So far, rhetorically, it’s good, but no tangible action. Some small tangible actions have been taken, but no meaningful action toward nuclearization has been taken. So we keep our eyes on them.

There have been at least two major denuclearization agreements. One in 1994, was a U.S. and South Korea agreed framework. An agreement was made, but North Korea failed to denuclearize and the agreement failed in 2002 or 2003.

And there was another made in 2007, which was a part of six-party talks featuring both of the Koreas, China, Japan, the U.S., and Russia. It was called Action Plan; it kind of produced some results. North Korea froze the operation in its nuclear reactor for six or seven years, but it failed again.

So two pretty important agreements have failed in the past. We are trying to be optimistic, but we have to remain cautious because what has happened, might happen again.