Australia National University's Amy Catalinac has posted an interesting essay to the East Asia Forum. In "Not made in China: Japan’s home-grown national security obsession," Catalinac argues that the increasing prominence of security issues as an organizing principle among Japanese politicians is due to the changes in the incentives politicians have had toward accepting or rejecting a party's official line. She finds that the replacement of medium-sized multiple member districts, where different factions of the Liberal Democratic Party slugged it out against each other for the majority of seats, with single member districts, shifted the goal posts for politicians, particularly those of the now once again superdominant LDP. Under the post-electoral reform regime, politicians are rewarded for their adherence to and advocacy of elements of the party’s policy platform, not the rewarding of particular constituents with pork-barrel projects.
Castilanac's assertion contradicts the conventional explanation that an increasing security consciousness is the result of an increasingly threatening local environment. It seems to provide a solution to one of the puzzles of Japanese politics: if security issues so important, and Japan is more and more threatened each day, why are security discussions hijacked by intellectual dead ends like the abductee problem or the history textbooks screening problem? (Link)
I like a lot of what Catalinac is saying. I am particularly heartened that someone shares my conviction that a rightward shift in Japanese public opinion exists mostly in the imaginations of foreign commentators, particularly Chinese and South Korean ones, whose motivations and assumptions are suspect.
I do have concerns regarding the evidence undergirding Catalinac's hypothesis. As outlined in the paper she released last fall in advance of her book-length study (Link) she has been using the texts of the election manifestos of individual candidates as her basic data set.
The biggest problem with relying on the elections manifestos, aside from the obvious one of few voters reading the darn things -- a problem that Catalinac acknowledges -- is that the target audiences for the documents have shifted. Whereas in the past the manifestos were written for party faithful to read in order to confirm whether a given candidate has the interests of his or her sworn supporters in mind, the manifestos are now being written either to 1) for party officials to peruse in order to check on levels of loyalty to the party or 2) for the floating voter read in order to help overcome his/her natural ambivalence and inertia.
My take has been that politicians adopt security stance complete with the irrationality of many of those stances (for example, the pledge to “solve the abductee problem,” without any reference as to what a solution would look like) because of the limits of creativity in political narrative. Politicians seek to tell stories about themselves in comprehensible shorthands and code words, temporarily stimulating visceral reactions among a sufficiently large number of largely disinterested voters. The parties provide a glossary of effective terminology and slogans, which identify the winning issues politicians can address with the least effort for all those involved.
Catalinac's insistence one can find a strong increase of interest in security issues starting only in 1996 will likely rub some writers the wrong way. Indeed, the standard view is that no dramatic shift exists – that
a) Japan has always been a conservative country and
b) there has always been a freewheeling security discussion, with conservatives, reactionaries and revisionists having the loudest voices
I have always felt uncomfortable with (a) as national survey results have not been generally support of the assertion of an inherently conservative mindset.
As for (b), I have always felt there is a difference between the intellectual battles going on in the weeklies and monthlies and the commonly available set of choices most of the public consumes and cogitates upon. For any given point in time, past or present, one is likely to find more variation of intellectual positions inside the pages of Chuo Koron than existed out on the street.