“Politics Is About What Is Done—Not Who Is Doing It”


The influential Diet member Ishiba Shigeru shares his views on some of the diplomatic and domestic challenges facing Japan. In particular, he stresses the need to overcome the current restriction of collective self-defense and for Japan to raise its consumption tax sooner rather than later. Although a prominent member of the opposition LDP, Ishiba is eager to work with the current DPJ administration to address these crucial issues.

Ishiba Shigeru

Member of Japan’s House of Representatives. Born in Tottori Prefecture in 1957. After graduating from Keiō University in 1979, he joined Mitsui Bank, where he worked until 1983. After leaving the bank he won a Diet seat for the Tottori at-large district in the thirty-eighth general election (now the Tottori Prefecture first district), and has been reelected eight times. He has served as senior state secretary and as the minister for both the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries and the Ministry of Defense. Major publications include Shokugyō seiji no fukken: Konmei kara no dasshutsu sore wa mutōhasō ga mezameru toki (Restoring Career Politics: Turmoil Will End when Independents Wake Up) and Kokubō (National Defense).

North Korea Won’t Change Its Tune

INTERVIEWER How do you view the situation in North Korea, which recently announced a new missile test?

ISHIBA SHIGERU North Korea is a country that always does what it says it will do. Even with the change in leadership from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, there will be no change whatsoever in policy. Some see the possibility that an intelligent, 29-year-old leader will be able to steer the country down a different path, but it’s simply inconceivable under the regime for Kim Jong-un to overturn the policies of his father. I think it only makes sense to expect the country to continue in the direction set by Kim Jong-il.

Along with Kim Jong-un becoming the new head of state, this year also marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the seventieth anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong-il, and the eightieth anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s military regime. So there are sure to be huge celebrations in the country. And the country’s distinctive brand of brinkmanship diplomacy will also be raised to a new level, as the rulers seek to demonstrate to North Koreans why the reins of leadership have been handed over to such a young man.

In dealling with a country like North Korea, repeating the words “dialogue and pressure” like a mantra does not do a bit of good. Japan, the United States, and South Korea must examine exactly what this pressure entails before even considering to what extent to include China and Russia. Properly pressuring North Korea requires having in place the appropriate laws, agreements, facilities, and operations. Without specifically identifying what elements are lacking and making the necessary improvements, simply repeating the catchphrase “pressure” ad nauseam is useless. Words alone—no matter how bold—will have no real effect in pressuring North Korea.

In launching what it has called “satellites,” North Korea is trying to move one step closer to its goal of creating a missile capable of reaching the United States. If it continues to make progress, North Korea will eventually be able to threaten the United States with a warhead. If we do not resolve the problem before that point, the situation will have entered an entirely new phase—but time is not on our side.

Iran Crisis and the Strait of Hormuz

INTERVIEWER What are your thoughts on Iran’s nuclear development?

ISHIBA We can’t forget that the Strait of Hormuz is a lifeline for Japan. If Iran were to actually close the strait, Japan would have to work with the international community to formulate a response. Dispatching minesweepers would also become a real possibility.

Japan proved it possesses world-class minesweeping technology when it deployed minesweepers during the Gulf War. If it were to deploy them again, the Maritime Self-Defense Force would work to ensure the safe passage of vessels through the strait.

Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” Because of this, if a conflict breaks out between Iran and the United States when the JMSDF is conducting minesweeping drills, it would be forced to temporarily withdraw. The Constitution would allow the JMSDF, however, to continue to operate after the end of the conflict or in the event it was unclear which country had laid the mines. This would require close coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and for Japan to demonstrate the validity of its actions while choosing operations that remain within the scope of the Constitution.

The Need for Collective Self-Defense

INTERVIEWER Will the changing constitutional interpretation regarding collective self-defense play a key role going forward?

ISHIBA I believe that collective self-defense is possible with a change in the interpretation of the Constitution alone, rather than requiring constitutional reform. However, it isn’t sufficient to merely declare that the interpretation has changed; I support the establishment of a basic national security law that would lay out conditions for the use of collective self-defense. While there has been intense debate within the Liberal Democratic Party, we are now nearing a consensus in support of collective self-defense. When the LDP was in power and I held positions as the senior vice minister and later the minister of defense, and I had to pledge that I would not recognize collective self-defense, as it exceeded levels necessary for the defense of Japan alone. Now that the Democratic Party of Japan is in power, it’s extremely difficult for the LDP, as a minority party, to change the interpretation of the Constitution. We will need to campaign on the use of collective self-defense and win the next general election to implement any changes. There are some within the LDP who are still patently opposed to any constitutional changes, so amending the Constitution will be no easy task.

With regard to deterrence, there are three basic types: deterrence through retaliation, deterrence through punishment, and deterrence through denial. Retaliation is not an option in Japan’s case, so it must make use of a combination of the other two. Deterrence through punishment is the stance of making it clear that an act of aggression will result in negative repercussions for the aggressor. Deterrence through denial, meanwhile, involves ensuring that even if an act of aggression is committed it will not be effective. Examples of the denial approach include the ballistic missile defense program that has been under development since the Koizumi Jun’ichirō administration [2001–6] and the Civil Protection Law stipulating domestic measures in the event of an armed attack on Japan. Even if North Korea launches a missile attack on Japan, our missile defense capability makes it possible to shoot down an incoming missile. And we also have the deterrent of safely evacuating our citizens to limit casualties in the event that a missile passes through our defenses.

Why Communist Rule Continues in China

INTERVIEWER How do you view the recent threat of Chinese naval expansion?

ISHIBA Chinese history is a long line of changing dynasties. Some of the major ones that come to mind are the Qing, Ming, Yuan, Sung, Tang, and Sui dynasties. The Chinese Communist Party can be thought of as the present dynasty, so the question becomes why this Communist dynasty has lasted as long as it has.

The Marxist-Leninist ideology of solidarity in shared poverty was used to suppress the populace and support the state during the founding of modern China. But, with the Open Door Policy of Deng Xiaoping, China ushered in the unprecedented age of a communist government and a capitalist economy. A multitude of contradictions erupted, including a wealth gap in a communist state, the existence of capitalists, and the sharp contrast between coastal affluence and inland poverty. To maintain the system, the government must keep the dream alive for its people that they will be richer next year, and even richer in five or ten years if communism is left alone. In other words, economic development is essential to maintaining the system.

The People’s Liberation Army is a tool for prolonging the status quo; it’s an army of the Communist Party, not of the Chinese people. You can think of China’s military expansion as a means of sustaining the party.

A Functional Chinese Carrier Task Force Unlikely

INTERVIEWER China’s military expansion is becoming a concern for its neighbors, including Japan.

ISHIBA Even when judged against the scale of human history, China’s period of ruling East Asia is quite long. And the country has some sense of regret about its decline in international prestige ever since the First Opium War (1840–42). Given this mixture of pride and regret, it would not be surprising if some Chinese were keen to revive the nation’s imperial past. China’s neighbors naturally feel threatened by China in light of the fact that it did once dominate the region and because of the statements now being made that point to a desire for renewed hegemony.

But the fact remains that spending money alone does not always lead to dramatic gains in military capability. China purchased an aircraft carrier from Ukraine, but whether it can operate it as an actual carrier task force is doubtful. Historically, the only navies that have been able to successfully operate carrier units have been the Imperial Japanese Navy from before the start through the early phases of World War II, and the current United States Navy. Even the Cold War–era Soviet navy could not successfully operate a carrier group. If China simply wants to own a carrier as a symbol of having come of age as a great power, it will be a waste of money. But I think China is smarter than that. My concern is that it may have in mind the role the British carrier played in the Falklands War. That is to say, China’s key motivation may be the simple idea that a carrier is required to take an island, rather than the goal of operating a carrier task force.

Economic Ties No Safeguard Against War

INTERVIEWER Forty years have passed since the normalization of relations between Japan and China. How will history look back on this period? And what can we expect for the future of Sino-Japanese relations?

ISHIBA The Japanese and Chinese economies have become totally interdependent, with neither able to survive without the other. In this sense, there is a positive legacy of those forty years. But strong economic ties are no guarantee of a future free of war. When World War I broke out, Germany’s top trading partner by an overwhelming margin was Britain. Lord Palmerston, who served as the British foreign minister and prime minister in the mid-nineteenth century, said that even the strongest economic ties will crumble in the face of nationalism.

I think that security experts need to bear in mind that if China is dead set on maintaining its Communist dynasty then almost anything could happen as a result of a change in the economic situation. There is a possibility that China’s population may begin to decline before its economy peaks because of the one-child policy. What has made the Japanese economy sustainable is the existence of a broad middle class, but the Chinese economy may reach its peak before its own middle class is in place. The foundation for ensuring regional stability in the event of a disturbance in China is, of course, the Japan-US Alliance. This bilateral alliance remains central to providing assurance to other Asian countries, checking any Chinese expansionist ambitions, and preserving the regional balance of power.

As with “dialogue and pressure,” simply repeating the words “Japan-US Alliance”—whether a hundred or a thousand times—will do nothing to strengthen the actual alliance. Rather, what clearly seems necessary is for Japan to be allowed the right to exercise collective self-defense. One ill-considered move by Japanese leaders—such as the statement from former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio that the Futenma Air Station would be moved overseas, or at least outside the prefecture—has the potential to end the strong bilateral alliance in the blink of an eye.

Japan does not have to choose between the United States and Asia. This is because the Japan-US Alliance is premised on our engagement with Asia, and Japan is of no use to the alliance unless it is a powerful member of Asia. If Japan becomes able to exercise collective self-defense, the question becomes the extent to which it will be able to take over some of the roles now being played by the United States. An alliance isn’t about doing every last thing in a lockstep fashion. It seems appropriate for Japan to bear responsibility for certain aspects and geographic areas.

Consumption Tax Must Be Raised

INTERVIEWER With the current decline of Japan’s middle class, which has supported Japan’s economic development, how can the nation get back on a growth trajectory and restructure its public finances?

ISHIBA I am a strong believer in the positive role the consumption tax can play. It has the power to generate revenue sizable enough to make a real contribution to the welfare of an aging society. Not increasing the consumption tax, despite the rising expenditures on social security, results in a dysfunctional system—as can be seen in Japan’s current enormous national debt.

The graying of Japan’s population is expected to peak out around 2060. We are now at the second or third point along that mountain trail—the real challenges still lie ahead. Given the situation we face, it will not be enough to simply raise the consumption tax by 5 percentage points and leave everything else the same. At the same time, we must also think about increasing the overall size of the economic pie.

Within the DPJ, there is a faction led by Ozawa Ichirō opposed to raising the consumption tax until the economy picks up. It makes more sense, in my mind, to raise the tax as soon as possible to avoid passing on a huge bill to our children. There are also many cases where Japan’s warped tax policy is dragging down its economy. My impression is that the politicians have their eye on elections when they insist that tax reform must wait until the economy recovers. Even though politicians are always claiming to “put people’s lives first” they seem to be stuck in the same old approach of making no distinction between the affluent and those in need when it comes to expenditures related to the national child allowance, free high school, free expressway use, and the universal farm income support program.

Time Is Ripe for Political Restructuring

INTERVIEWER What do you feel it will take for Japanese politics to break out of its current impasse? Will it take a grand coalition government; or is a complete political restructuring necessary? We would love to hear your take on the situation as an LDP leader.

ISHIBA Political restructuring is essential, I believe, but the question is when this should be carried out. It’s easier to think about tax and social-security reform together. And since these issues must be addressed regardless of which party wins in the general election, it makes sense to start now. The LDP can offer advice in areas in which the DPJ might be lacking. Now is the chance to implement a unified reform of both the tax and social-security systems. And this could be followed by the dissolution of the Diet to hold a general election.

In order to make this move, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko would have to promise to dissolve the Diet. I think that he, unlike former Prime Minister Hatoyama, can be trusted to keep his word, and I am looking to Noda to make the right decision for that unified reform.

INTERVIEWER So you believe genuine restructuring will come after that?

ISHIBA I have always said that politics is about what is done—not who is doing it. In my twenty-five years as a member of the Diet, I have met plenty of people with more talent, decision-making skills, and vision than I have. Ideally, of course, things are best left to those best-suited to do them, but I like to team up with those who share a common purpose and then work together with them.

As for my personal goals, as I mentioned before, I would like to change Japan so it can contribute to regional order and stability. To begin with, I think that we need to make collective self-defense possible and also work to build a framework for Japanese politicians to handle domestic security policy intelligently and pursue security discussions overseas.

Hashimoto Tōru, the leader of the Osaka Restoration Association, has gained attention, and he is both extremely intelligent and very politically adept—head and shoulders above many others. But it would be wrong to uncritically accept all of the positions of the organization, just as it would be mistaken to vilify it and completely reject its policies. Political restructuring, not limited to the ideas espoused by the Osaka Restoration Association, will begin once Japanese politicians have arrived at a shared national vision.

Ishiba’s House of Representatives office is full of model airplanes and ships given to him by his constituents, as well as figurines of the 1970s idol group Candies, of which he is a big fan.

(Translated from a March 22, 2012, interview in Japanese. Interviewer Harano Jōji is representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. Photos by Ōkubo Keizō.)

Noda Yoshihiko consumption tax security China politics Japan-US Alliance Osaka Restoration Association North Korea collective self-defense Kim Jong-un satellite Iran Strait of Hormuz Ishiba Shigeru Maritime Self-Defense Force political restructuring long-range ballistic missile Japan’s Constitution Article 9 Nagata-cho