Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has called early elections for October 22 to seek to improve his Liberal Democratic Party’s position in the parliament. Americans have a tendency not to pay too close attention to what happens in Japan. This is partly because its society and, thus, its politics are complex and hard to understand. Second, Japan usually, at least superficially, seems to follow US policy lines in foreign affairs without America having to exert too much pressure on its leaders.
It would, however, be a mistake on the part of President Donald Trump and other American presidents and leaders to take Japan for granted. It is the world’s third-largest economy. It has a substantial population of 127mn. Speaking to what seems to be a major preoccupation of American governments, it has been in the past and could be again in the blink of an eye a formidable military power.
Its present situation, which undoubtedly prompted Abe to call elections, is strong. Its economy in the form of its gross domestic product expanded in the second quarter of the year, for the sixth quarter in a row, by an annualised 4%. (The United States pushes to do an estimated 2 percent.)
Japan’s security situation is determined by its potentially terrifying proximity to North Korea with its rocket-rattling leader, Kim Jong-un. A look at the map reminds one that, apart from South Korea, Japan is the country that is most threatened by North Korea’s increasing nuclear weapons capacity. North Korea does regularly whiz rockets over the Japanese islands, to threaten Japan and the United States, Japan’s ostensible protector.
It is also important to remember that, given its advanced technical capacities, Japan could have nuclear weapons in a very short period if it wanted to. It has preferred, since what turned out to be its military debacle in World War II, to continue until now to depend on the United States for assurances of its security. There are more than 50,000 US troops in Japan. They are not entirely popular there, particularly on the island of Okinawa. If the United States wants to continue to maintain Japan as a base for its forces in Northeast Asia, opposite China, it is probably not wise to threaten to remove those troops, from supposed pique or for financial reasons.
Given the healthy state of the economy, the North Korean threat to Japan’s security, Abe’s reputation as favouring a stronger Japanese indigenous defence, and the careful relationship he has so far staked out with America under Trump, it is likely that he and his party will do well in the upcoming elections.
With the declining role of America in the world as it withdraws from international agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Japan had strongly supported, and America’s seeming inability to master wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, it is probably not a bad thing for Japan to evolve into a stronger player in international and military affairs, particularly in Asia, confronted by China as the world’s growing power as well as by the pesky North Koreans.
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