Japan from the inside out

Civilian control

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 10, 2012

THE insistence of the Japanese political class on civilian control is easy to understand in view of their prewar and wartime experience with a government dominated by the military. Less easy to understand is the extended definition of the term by some to mean “control by elected politicians sitting in the Diet”.

Two applications of that extended definition last week brought its potential drawbacks into focus.

Morimoto Satoshi (Asahi Shimbun photo)

The first was the appointment of Morimoto Satoshi to Defense Minister as part of Prime Minister Noda’s Cabinet rearrangement early last week. Mr. Morimoto is an impeccable choice with extensive experience and expertise in national security issues. He is a 1965 graduate of the National Defense Academy (i.e., Japan’s West Point / Naval Academy) who served in the Air Self-Defense Forces until 1979. That year he joined the Foreign Ministry, where he stayed until 1992. In the meantime, he was awarded a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1980. He left government service in 1992 to join the Nomura Research Institute, where he was employed until 2001. He also began teaching at universities in 1995, and was at Takushoku University when he was appointed last week.

The new defense secretary supports a robust military capability for Japan as one element of its security treaty with the United States.  He wrote a paper in 2003 supporting the American position in Iraq, though he seems to have opposed it at first. He also backs the move of the Futenma air base in Okinawa used by the U.S. Marines to another part of the prefecture, rather than outside the prefecture or the country. He justifies the Marine presence in Japan by insisting their capability to attack is a strong deterrent and therefore a defensive measure. (That ensures his appointment will displease many Okinawans.)

He wrote the following in an op-ed in the 29 May 2010 edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun:

If Prime Minister Hatoyama’s idea of moving the bases outside the country becomes a reality, the foundation of the Japan-U.S. alliance built up over successive administrations will crumble. His thinking contains a strong element of unarmed neutrality, and he has no sense of the threat from China….the decisive difference between this government and the LDP governments is the lack of sufficient discussion about Okinawa. It isn’t enough for Prime Minister Hatoyama just to visit there.

The appointment is another clear indication that the foreign policy views of Noda Yoshihiko are quite different from those of his predecessors.  His stated views on domestic affairs are in line with the contemporary version of what is called the Third Way in the West.  In foreign affairs, his two DPJ predecessors were both internationalists with the implicit goal of global governance. (We’ve covered this before and their positions are beyond question.) That’s not Mr. Noda’s stroke, however. Were he a member of the LDP, the English-language media would have already dubbed him a hawk. It would surprise no one if it were his personal, unspoken view to favor ditching Article 9, the peace clause of the Constitution.

Thus, as one Japanese commentator had it, the old LDP governments wished they could have appointed someone like Morimoto Satoshi to head the Defense Ministry or its predecessor agency, but avoided because it would have caused too much controversy.

There was little controversy when a DPJ pol selected him, however. Indeed, the objections that did arise contained a hint of irony. The politicians most vocal in their disagreement with the appointment were members of the LDP. Here’s a condensed version of a series of Tweets from LDP lower house member Sato Yukari. Keep in mind while you’re reading that she has a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia, a Ph.D. in economics from New York University, and worked as an economist at Credit Suisse First Boston before her Diet election in 2005 as one of the Koizumi Children:

I was surprised the instant I saw the report this morning that Morimoto Satoshi has been appointed Defense Minister in the Noda Cabinet reshuffle. There is no precedent for appointing a civilian to be the defense minister or the person responsible for national defense.

The critical decisions related to national defense that a defense minister must make will not be supported by the popular will as expressed through an election when the minister is not a politician. I have no criticism of the person appointed this time, because Mr. Morimoto is a valuable national asset as an expert with a wealth of knowledge and vision about military affairs. The process of personnel selection in a democracy in particular is indispensable for the civilian control that is the foundation of national defense. I don’t understand where the responsibility of the state for national defense is rooted in this appointment. It highlights the problem of the quality of Prime Minister Noda’s appointments.

That last sentence is not all political posturing: Previous defense minister Tanaka Naoki was a noodnik chosen solely to appease the Ozawa wing of the party, Mr. Noda’s finance minister and foreign minister are featherweights, and the pro-TPP Noda appointed an anti-TPP pol as agriculture minister. Nevertheless, Ms. Sato’s primary concern is “civilian control”, which was echoed by LDP lower house member Ishiba Shigeru, himself a former defense minister.

The contrast with what Americans consider civilian control could not be more pronounced. Mr. Morimoto is the sort of man that both Republicans and Democrats have appointed to the position of Defense Secretary to broad approval. (Philosophical differences are another matter, but that’s what elections are for.) In the American sense, civilian control means that military officers do not determine political policy and aren’t independent actors in the field. The corollary is that the politicians do not become actively involved in the particulars of tactics. They don’t stand around a table with generals and push models of tanks and battleships, nor do they plot bombing patterns.

The new defense minister knows the story. When asked whether his appointment was a problem from the standpoint of civilian control, Mr. Morimoto pointed out that he served at the discretion of the prime minister, who holds the ultimate authority. Perhaps a successful term in office by a man of his stature will salve the allergy.

Now for the bad news

Last week’s second example of the application of the Japanese interpretation of civilian control has the potential for more serious negative consequences. In fact, the nation is less than 18 months removed from a demonstration of just how serious those consequences could be.

The DPJ government is sponsoring a bill to create a new organization for the regulation of nuclear safety. The LDP and New Komeito wanted to prevent politicians from making the final technical decisions during nuclear crises, but withdrew this demand to compromise with the DPJ (perhaps to facilitate the restart of the nuclear plants).  A Mainichi article sums up their position:

The LDP-New Komeito alliance argued that a nuclear regulatory commission comprised of experts should be authorized to have control over the response to an accident at a nuclear power station. They pointed out that after the Fukushima nuclear disaster triggered by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s intervention caused confusion in workers’ response to the crisis.

The DPJ disagreed:

The government has maintained that the prime minister and environment minister must be given authority to issue orders during emergencies at nuclear plants. “It’s the minimum necessity and the last resort in crisis management,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said…Decisions on nuclear plant accidents, including those covering the release of radioactive substances and the evacuation of residents, can greatly impact local communities around nuclear power stations….Moreover… it is difficult for atomic energy experts to make judgments on the wide range of issues involved — from people’s livelihoods to the economy and diplomacy.

And that means:

Specifically, the prime minister will be allowed to make the final decision on whether to release water contaminated with low levels of radioactive substances into the sea, whether to vent nuclear reactors to lower pressure inside their containment vessels, and whether to inject water into reactors to cool down their cores.

Those aren’t reasons. Those are excuses.  Considering the relative levels of expertise, foresight, and wisdom of the people frequently appointed to Japanese Cabinets — particularly to the position of environment minster — putting responsibility into their hands is playing with atomic fire. Let independent experts make the decisions, and let the politicians handle the ramifications, such as resident evacuation, based on those decisions.

After watching the behavior of Kan Naoto last year post-Fukushima, the idea of giving the prime minister that authority is enough to make a strong man head to the liquor cabinet. The only people who seriously defend Kan Naoto’s behavior in those days are partisan hacks, other Cabinet members trying to deflect the national anger, and a handful of foreigners who got their letters printed in the Japan Times.

Here’s Chuo University Law School professor Nomura Shuya, a member of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission:

A panel investigating Japan’s nuclear disaster said Saturday that the ex-prime minister and his aides caused confusion at the height of last year’s crisis by heavily interfering in the damaged and leaking plant’s operation.

Shuya Nomura, a member of the parliamentary panel, said that Naoto Kan’s aides made numerous calls to the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, often asking basic questions and distracting workers, thus causing more confusion. They did not follow the official line of communication – through the regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency – under the country’s nuclear disaster management law, he said.

“They asked questions that were often inappropriate and very basic, unnecessarily causing more work in addition to the operation at the site,” he said.


The panel also criticized Kan and his government for not releasing radiation data and other critical information, thereby causing unnecessary exposures and creating widespread distrust of the government.

It is of little consolation that the LDP/New Komeito agreed on the condition that the authority of the politicians will be limited to a yet-unspecified extent.

The practical effect of this measure will be exactly the opposite of the intent of civilian control. It is the functional equivalent of allowing prime ministers to stand around a table with generals to push models of tanks and battleships and plot bombing patterns.  The world has already seen what happens when that responsibility is given to a man with a perpetual hangover, a perpetual grudge against society, and a perpetual ambition to become a Famous Person in History. None of us need to see that again.

In the long term, the decision by the opposition to compromise in this case could be more detrimental to the national safety than the resumption of operations at the nuclear power plants.


It’s nice and hot here in Kyushu today. Makes me feel like getting on a bike and passing out bananas to everyone in the neighborhood. Everybody likes bananas, right?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: