What Happened to Japan’s Influenza Season?

Being in Japan right now and seeing the crisis footing of many countries around the world can feel a bit surreal. How can it be that Japan has the number of cases it does, the population density it does, and the government has not until now felt the need to declare a state of emergency or completely shut down its borders? This is especially true if you live in the Kantō area,* where even a reduction of 20 to 30 percent of people on the street or passengers in trains can still seem…crowded.

Of course, (most) members of the public have engaged in ‘behavioural modifications’ and the government has pursued ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’ (NPIs) such as requesting school closures and the cancellation of big, crowded events. It is easy to wonder, nevertheless, whether self-restraint in terms of going out (ie. the ubiquitous calls for jishuku), physical distancing, avoiding closed, poorly ventilated spaces, engaging in proper ‘cough etiquette’, or other hygeinic measures to avoid contacting or transmitting SARS-CoV-2, are actually having any effect? The recent dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases in Tokyo would seem to suggest that discipline and vigilance dropped mid-March, and more drastic measures will be needed to avoid overwhelming medical facilities.

Pertinent to this issue of overburdening medical facilities—and possibly a direct outcome of aforementioned ‘behaviour modification’ and NPIs—is the fate of Japan’s influenza season. To look at this, we can use Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) regular in-season influenza tracking reports. Using 5000 fixed ‘sentinel’ medical institutions to track weekly reported cases of influenza, and 500 fixed in-patient core medical facilities to track hospitalizations, the Japanese government can get a good sense of whether the influenza season is tracking better or worse than previous seasons without having to do a comprehensive, nation-wide survey.

And, at the beginning of 2020, it looked like the 2019-2020 influenza season was going to be brutal. It started earlier than usual in September, with 7 times the number of hospitalizations at the core medical facilities than previous two seasons for that month. Hospitalization cases in December were still 3-4 times higher than the previous two seasons. This is something, because influenza-induced deaths have been rapidly trending upwards since 2010 according to MHLW annual statistics. The previous two seasons each resulted in national totals of 3308 deaths (2017-2018) and 3,267 deaths (2018-2019 season) from influenza directly or influenza-induced pneumonia. The 2018 calendar year was the deadliest year since 1970 for influenza fatalities. This year was on track to be even worse.

Then, suddenly, it was not to be.

Weekly observations at the 5000 fixed sentinels never reached the heights of previous seasons. The comparatively very bad December ended up being the peak of this year’s influenza season based on sentinel reports. The figure below taken from MHLW regular influenza reports tracks the peaks and troughs of the respective 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20 influenza seasons. The y-axis is the number of reported cases per sentinel per week, while the x-axis is the week of the year. 

Observations Influenza

A very similar trend can be seen when I collated the monthly totals for hospitalizations at core medical institutions, an arguably more concrete measure of influenza impact.

Japan Influenza Hospitalisations by Month (MHLW Weekly Reports)

Like sentinel observations, influenza hospitalizations dramatically dropped after December. While December’s hospitalizations were four times up on the previous season, January had only just over 1/3rd the hospitalizations of the previous January. In February 2020, hospitalizations were 31 percent of the 2018/2019 season, and 19 percent of the 2017/2018 season. March was even kinder, registering 20 percent and 10 percent of hospitalizations, respectively, for influenza compared to previous years. Despite the earlier start to the season, 2019/20 hospitalizations for influenza at the 500 core institutions will register only 2/3rds of the previous two seasons.

To be sure, by the start of 2020 there was already significant concern about how deadly this influenza season was going to be. The MHLW had raised its alert level. Many classes and class years in Japanese schools were being closed to contain influenza. Students were told to dispense with any gaman (perseverance) and to stay home even if they had the slightest influenza symptoms. Then Japan got its first COVID-19 case in mid-January.

Perhaps, I wondered, hospitalizations were driven down by the moderately influenza-afflicted avoiding hospitals or being told to avoid hospitals given the risks of contracting the novel coronavirus? However, when one looks at the ‘serious’ hospitalizations from influenza requiring special care—admission to the ICU, the use of artificial respirators, or the conduct of a CT scan, MRI or EEG—a similar pattern emerges.

ICU Influenza Admissions
Artificial Respirator Use Necessary
CT, MRI, EEG Scans

For each of these categories, the December numbers were at least three times higher than those for the 2017/2018 and 2018/2019 seasons. Then, in the new year, the numbers dropped off rapidly. This does not suggest any kind of rationing in favour of serious cases versus moderate cases. From this data, it seems Japan as a whole had one of the lightest influenza seasons for many years with total hospitalizations in the 2019/2020 season coming to 66 percent of the previous season’s total, and hospitalizations requiring special attention coming to approximately 78 percent of the previous season (despite the very high early numbers).

Another Japanese rapid notification system using indicative measures is administered by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. It uses notifications from 21 major Japanese urban jurisdictions of deaths from influenza and pneumonia. Rather than simply reporting raw numbers, the collated reports are measured against an expected mortality rate baseline modeled on factors including the presence of underlying diseases and the aging of the population.  ‘Excess mortality’ from influenza and/or pneumonia takes place when actual deaths exceeds a threshold—defined as the upper limit of the 95% confidence interval for the baseline. The figure below shows that in December 2019, actual influenza-related and pneumonia deaths (blue line) were at the excess mortality threshold (pink). However, by the end of January we start to see a consistent downward trend towards the baseline (green line), and then a big plunge around the start of March as many jurisdictions did not report any deaths.

influenza pneumonia deaths

Regrettably, as can be seen below, Tokyo is letting the team down (again), with reports of excess mortality at the end of the year, and the end of February.

tokyojinsoku

Like the MHLW weekly influenza reports, this data is more indicative rather than complete, and the MHLW statistics yearbook will have the final word on influenza and pneumonia deaths nationwide. From what I can tell, even the 2019 data will not be published until the middle of this year.

Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe that Japan as a whole avoided a high death rate from influenza as the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold.**

Perhaps the most striking result, however, came from when I broke down the number of hospitalizations into age groups. Unlike COVID-19, influenza and influenza-induced pneumonia are equal opportunity menaces in that both the elderly as well as infants and younger children are likely to be particularly susceptible. Interestingly, if we look at the statistics for hospitalizations, under 60 age cohorts were hospitalized in similar numbers to the previous two years, but hospitalizations of those over 60 were down considerably.

Japan Influenza Serious Hospitalisations by Age Group

Furthermore, influenza hospitalizations requiring greater attention and care (ICU admission, use of artificial respirators, and the need for various scans) revealed similar year-to-year patterns.

Influenza ICU Admissions by Age Group
Artificial Respirator Use Necessary by Age Group
CT, MRI, EEG Scans by Age Group

In fact, this year’s influenza looks like the reverse image of COVID-19 in terms of the group it most afflicts. Why is this? I am not really sure, although the answer could be as simple as people being more careful around older people and giving them greater leeway in public (what I’d like to believe), although it is more likely that over 60s were the most ardent practitioners of self-restraint and seldom left home out of fear of COVID-19.

I collated these statistics mainly for my own interest as a proxy indicator of whether behavioural modification was actually taking place in the Kantō region of Japan. Deciding which non-pharmaceutical intervention was the most effective at mercifully cutting short the influenza season is better left to the experts; but whatever it was, given the possibility of much stricter limitations under a state of emergency declaration for the Kantō region, we can take some comfort from the thought that the two months of on-and-off jishuku and other behavioural modifications was not for naught. It is likely many lives have been spared from both COVID-19 and influenza.


*The Kantō region is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government plus the surrounding prefectures. Population of around 40 million people.

**There was also no major increase in the units of influenza vaccines procured in advance for the 2019/2020 season (see this MHLW document, p.3). Since the early part of the season was particularly bad, and younger age groups suffered as much as usual, enhanced vaccine effectiveness for this year is unlikely to be an explanation.

***For those interested, early season reports found Influenza-B to be most common at 59%, the ‘new influenza’ from the 2009 season (AH1pdm09) registered 39%、and Influenza-A (subtype H3N2) was 2%.

How different are the newly enfranchised Japanese voters?

According (jp) to two concurrently implemented Yomiuri Shimbun surveys, not significantly different. But there are a few ‘highlights.’
Yomiuri May 2016
Comment: 60 percent of 18-19 year old respondents could not bring themselves to select a party they have a favourable opinion of, even when pushed to consider them in comparison!  (NB: SDP and other parties at 0 or 1%). In most questions in this survey, the newly enfranchised seem about as optimistic and as pessimist (read: pessimistic) as the general population on the state of Japan’s politics.
Nuclear Energy
Comment: While clearly public opinion overall still works against the current government’s nuclear energy policy, I do think it is interesting that just over 30% of 18-19 year old respondents wouldn’t mind a return to pre-disaster levels of nuclear energy or higher. Perhaps climate change concerns outweigh nuclear risk for some?
Constitution Amendment
Comment: It seems that the reduction of voting age that some constitutional revisionists hoped would facilitate constitutional change may well backfire. In this survey, 18-19 year old respondents were also less approving of last year’s ‘collective self-defense’ security legislation (63% vs 57% for the over 20 sample).
Favourability towards constitutional revision ‘in general’ is normally well over 50 percent, often in the 60 percent range. The only time this has not been the case since the 1990s has been…when Abe has been in power (both times). Favourability towards Article 9 revision specifically has dropped (jp) from the high 30s/low 40s to the 20 percentage point range! (in some (jp) cases).
This might also be to do with Abe’s incumbency, but I suspect also that with the passage of the security legislation many moderates may not see a strong argument for going further. After all, Abe got (a sort of ) collective self-defense, and nobody strongly believes (jp) that the SDF is unconstitutional anyway.
International Dispute Engagement
Comment: This poll question is interesting because of the wording regarding Japan concerning itself with ‘resolving international disputes’, which echoes the wording of a certain Article 9. Usually these questions are worded in terms of diplomatic engagement or ‘international contribution’ rather than ‘international dispute resolution’ and get a more favourable response. That said, there is not a strong desire for increased isolationism.
Kind of Country
Comment: The Japanese public loves welfare and peace. Taken together, these poll questions would suggest some public caution of the ‘proactive contribution to peace’ narrative in terms of the nation security and values promotion aspects emphasized by the current government.
Immigration
Comment: I have been paying attention to polls on attitudes to immigration in Japan for some time, and it always strikes me how responses to immigration questions can vary considerably (more than others) depending on wording and choices given. Certainly there is a hardcore faction that is virulently against an immigration policy no matter what, but from time to time there are polls that suggest there might not be quite the antipathy to certain types of immigration emphasized in the media narrative on Japan. In this case, 68% of 18-19 year old respondents, and 51% for the rest of the sample, either decisively or cautiously agree with accepting ‘committed’ foreigners. The number of foreign residents has been steadily increasing anyway, and ‘we’ haven’t wrecked the place yet.
Neo-Liberalism
Comment: Japanese are clearly not ‘neo-liberals.’
Both surveys used a stratified two-stage random sampling method, were administered by post at the end of March, and targeted sample sizes of 2000 potential voters. The 18 and 19 year old survey attained a response rate of 55%, while the over 20 survey attained a response rate of 65% by the May 6 cut-off date. 

A Tale of Countries A and B in Japan’s Security Debate

Watching the Diet deliberations today yielded a rather surprising installment in the long running security legislation performance (some may say surrealist tragicomedy) being played out in Japan’s parliament.

(A国とB国、時々C国の物語 or the Tale of Countries A and B, Occasionally C, if you will. I don’t think Country D has made an appearance yet…)

The opposition was yet again focusing its energies on Minister of Defense Nakatani Gen who has been found in contradiction of fellow members of the ruling parties as well as his past self on more than one occasion.

The DPJ’s Fukuyama Tetsuro was working through a number of scenarios around when Japan would be able to invoke its right to self-defense (NB: none of these situations were predicated on the concerned scenarios and activities taking place within the territory of another nation).

Situation A: Fighter jets from Country A are attacking Japan. These platforms are being provisioned with fuel or weapons from other vessels/planes from the military of Country A. Does Japan have the right to invoke self-defense against the provisioning platforms of Country A in addition to the attacking platforms?

Answer: Yes (of course).

Situation B: Warship from Country A is attacking Japan. This vessel is being provisioned with fuel or weapons from a civilian vessel. Does Japan have the right to invoke self-defense against such civilian provisioning platforms?

Answer: Yes.

Situation C: Fighter/warship from Country A is attacking Japan. This plane/vessel is being provisioned with fuel or weapons from a plane/vessel from Country B. Does Japan have the right to invoke self-defense against provisioning platforms of Country B?

Answer: Yes, right?

No, because, apparently, Country B is only providing rear area support and not engaging in the use of force. Apparently only against Country A’s platforms would the use of force be justified. Confirmed by both Minister of Defense Nakatani and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

What?

Because the provisioning comes from the military of another, non-attacking country, then this is special?

Japan would have to sit back and allow Country B to keep provisioning Country A until Country A runs out of attacking platforms?

Of course, the issue for the government here is that in another situation Japan could well be Country B. And admitting that such an action would constitute a hostile action indistinguishable from any other use of force to the point of justifying a counter-attack against the provisioning platform would suggest that Japan’s new security legislation would a) indeed allow Japan to engage in hostile acts/use of force by means of direct military support of an allied nation assailing another nation, and b) would suggest that Japan’s SDF would indeed be at risk of being engaged in direct hostilities due to this legislation.

First, how incredibly naive is it to think that a country would hold off attacking Japan’s provisioning platforms because of some self-defined, self-binding Japanese constitutional interpretive peculiarity? I am sure the government doesn’t believe this, but requires a certain suspension of disbelief for others.

Second, I thought this reversal of the hypothetical situation was the gotcha that Fukuyama was building up to, but Fukuyama was one step ahead (of me at least) and had done his homework, homework that suggests there is a good reason for my surprise.

20150911_140440

One LDP foreign minister from times past is on record from 1999 saying that, from the general point of view, the use of force based on Japan’s inherent right to self-defense would be justified against a third country B if it was engaging in rear area activities that constituted an integral part of the use of force/hostile acts committed by Country A. As you would expect.

Now this minister was not simply a relic from the past to tossed away like so many other interpretations, principles and officials, but one current LDP Vice President Komura Masahiko: AKA the godfather of the current set of security bills.

And for good measure, Fukuyama had Nakatani on record as saying precisely the opposite just last month (Apologies for the dubious photography).

20150911_141415

This has been a security debate of surreal proportions already. And to be fair, this has been a characteristic of both sides of the debate. But this assertion/distinction could have real implications if not clarified or better explained in the days ahead as I dare hope it will be. Otherwise, in the eagerness to adopt collective self-defense and justify military activities further afield than the East Asia region that directly impacts upon Japan’s security, and make these somehow fit within the current constitutional framework, the Abe government may have just narrowed the range of applications of Japan’s inherent individual self-defense rights.

More on the South China Sea

After previous South China Sea interviews here and here, I also had a nice chat with Ken Moritsugu from AP regarding the South China Sea in the middle of month just before top SDF officials and the Japanese MOD started talking more about the “possibility” of Japan taking on a more prominent military role in the South China Sea.

Is Japan really getting involved?

Certainly the current Japanese government seems to be seriously considering this as a possibility, but my sense at this point in time is that it is about strategic signalling more than a commitment. The Japanese government has most notably upped the tempo of its military cooperation with the Philippines with the Philippines and Japanese militaries this year engaging in their first ever maritime joint training exercises in areas of the South China Sea. President Aquino’s latest visit saw the two countries discussing the possibility that Japan and the Philippines would consider an Visiting Forces Agreement where the MSDF could use Philippines’ facilities and maybe even have a rotating presence. The two countries have also agreed to upgrade their strategic partnership further and sign an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment. In addition, a Japanese defense minister made a symbolic visit Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam in 2013, and we have seen formerly more cautious Southeast Asian players like Malaysia and Indonesia looking to cooperate with Japan in explicitly defense-focused areas.

In what form?

I imagine at first it will simply be an increased presence in the region in terms of regularised joint training exercises and perhaps temporary use of bases. Increased intensity in cooperation associated with humanitarian assistance and disaster response will enhance operational familiarity and that in itself could be significant. In terms of traditional military exercises, Japan will likely concentrate in the near future on ways that it can enhance maritime situational awareness and surveillance of its SCS partners. In terms of joint patrols, Japan will likely get involved if other players, perhaps Australia, India or other ASEAN nations, also participate. I think there will be some reluctance within the broader foreign policy establishment in Japan if it was only Japan and the United States conducting joint patrols. A wider regional community response would give these operations greater legitimacy at home among the public.

How big a change in Japan’s postwar security policy would venturing into the SCS be?

I think it would depend on the type of response. If this was singularly a US-Japan-focused response involving Japan in physical maritime patrols or “freedom of navigation” operations using MSDF ships, then this would indeed represent a significant change in terms of Japan proactively projecting power into the South China Sea directly through the alliance mechanism. If it was framed in terms of a US-led Southeast Asian community response with various players involved, then in many ways it could be understood as a logical progression of Japan’s contributions to regional maritime security activities starting with anti-piracy activities in the 1990s.
A lot of this will depend on how long current tensions in the SCS persist, however. If, as some analysts have argued, China is upping the tempo this year ahead of the likely unfavourable Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in its dispute with the Philippines, but then intends to pulls back after that, then such Japanese involvement in SCS military operations may not come to fruition. If tensions continue or intensify in the coming years, then Japanese involvement may become inevitable.

There is a domestic factor to consider as well in that the Abe administration will likely need to go slow after passing any security legislation – even if they succeed they are likely to take a bit of a hit in terms of popularity. This may also be true in coming years if Abe and the LDP are serious about any constitutional change to Article 9.

Is this a good idea? Japan-China relations?

My sense is that at this point the Japanese government is engaging in strategic signalling and putting into place the necessary legal and military mechanisms as preparation ahead of making a final decision about whether to get more directly involved later down the track. There is the possibility that it might sour Japan-China relations which are currently improving, but it is also possible that Japan could use the “threat” of greater involvement in the South China Sea as leverage against China in tensions around the Senkaku Islands.

Related to this, and ultimately the key problem for the Japanese government, however, is that Japan does have very limited military resources to commit in terms of taking up a large role in the South China Sea at this point. The MSDF may be able to spare some capacity for air-based ISR activities, but beyond that I would be cautious about expecting too much unless we see an improvement in government finances and/or an increase in the military budget.

 

Japan’s Security Legislation (SCMP response)

Large sections originally in response to interview request for article: How ready is Japan to send its troops into battle after 70 years out of the firing line? Subsequently edited for clarity, expanded upon, and appended.

Also see Japan Times Article here for other comments on the security legislation (by @jljzen).

Next Steps for the SDF? 

First of all, the legislation has passed the House of Representatives but there still will be deliberations in the House of Councillors up until mid- to late-September. The government does control the upper house, or House of Councillors, but there are slightly different dynamics that could still collude to change the nature of the bills (see below).

That said, if the current legislation passes the House of Councillors in the exact form it is in now, then it is possible that we will see the SDF taking on expanded roles in “out of area” operations in the near future (ie beyond East Asia). Boiling it down, the legislation collectively will allow the SDF to get closer than ever before to front-line action of any military operations in the Middle East undertaken by the US or the UN. The SDF will not necessarily be able to proactively engage in hostilities on the front line of any conflict, but it will be able to provide various types of logistical and rear area support that blur even further the distinction between combat and non-combat zones that has structured SDF engagement abroad since the 1990s. And this is precisely what has been most controversial in the Japanese political discourse around the security bills, and the vagueness of the legislation itself on what precisely the SDF might do in any such operations has amplified this controversy.

I do think, however, more than Japan suddenly pursuing a significant overseas military footprint, the biggest practical change will be the enhancement of the working of the US-Japan alliance in the Northeast Asia region. The alliance has been moving towards greater integration for more or less 40 years for both Japan’s individual security and for regional security. This legislation will enhance this development and make it explicit that Japan’s SDF does have an important support role to play in regional military contingencies that also involve the United States.  North Korea and Taiwan (just quietly) are the most likely points of focus. The South China Sea may be another, although it seems that this is contingent on developments further down the line. Previous legislation in the late-1990s had made limited provisions for such regional roles, but as Japan’s individual security and regional security have become more intimately connected, the two governments are looking to relax further the restrictions placed on regional military cooperation during the 1990s.

I think in the short-term any further novel policy discussion arising from these bills will look at whether Japan should take on a greater military role in the South China Sea in concert with the US. This is still unsettled and, in terms of Japan’s military strategy, this would be a discrete and novel development that could arise out of these bills. A lot of other developments will be more explicit and strengthened versions of changes to Japan’s security posture and defense doctrine that started being implemented from the beginning of the DPJ administration.

Is the SDF ready to take on an expanded role?

While there is a consensus among Japanese defense and security policymakers that the SDF needs more legal flexibility, there are some internal reservations about the degree to which Japan can realistically expand its commitments beyond its largely self-defense-oriented posture. Japan certainly has relative military strengths in some capability areas, but the SDF is not really configured for sustained expeditionary operations that the US regularly undertakes globally, and it is not sufficiently resourced to consider greatly expanding this capability set. Without a quite significant increase in defense spending (well beyond the 1% of GDP “limit”), it is unlikely to be so configured in the future, either.

In fact, there may be worries that if Japan became more involved in the South China Sea or the Middle East, for example, this could undermine Japan’s focus on defensive deterrence at home. Germany is in some ways instructive for Japan – from the 1990s, Germany focused on developing its expeditionary capabilities and has let its more traditional defense capabilities and its military readiness at home atrophy somewhat, along with many other NATO members. Germany dispatched combat troops to Afghanistan, and now even its expeditionary capabilities have become severely degraded. With Russia becoming more menacing in Europe, this change in defensive orientation has subsequently been questioned, especially given how badly US and NATO intervention in the Middle East proceeded. The Germans are now resolving,at least, to address this issue. Of course, it is not necessarily an either/or problem, but Japanese policymakers are wary of over-commitment.

Is Japan psychologically ready for overseas combat?

Despite foreign fantasies of a samurai deeply and surreptitiously stirring in the Japanese collective psyche, no, Japan is not psychologically ready. This applies to both the SDF and its social contract with its citizens and the families of SDF members, and in terms of wider public sentiment. And despite the problems with government explanations and controversies surrounding these bills, it is unlikely that we will see Japan participating in any “wars” or overseas combat operations any time soon. Certainly these bills increase the risk that Japan may inadvertently get caught up in overseas conflict, and to deny otherwise as the government has is irresponsible, but the SDF’s overseas military footprint will remain far more restrained than even that which Germany has embraced in the post-Cold War era, notwithstanding severe changes in either the regional or global security environment. A significant reason for this is because of public opinion in Japan. While governments can override public opinion in terms of legislative preferences, as has happened in parliamentary proceedings in Japan recently, they do need sustained support for actually deploying troops overseas.

The Abe administration will certainly suffer some damage from passing the legislation. And we need to remember this is not over yet and it could well suffer more damage. For the first time we have seen the approval and disapproval percentages reversed in multiple Japanese opinion surveys.(Update: Appears that was an understatement – Kyodo reports a 10% drop in support ratings for the Abe cabinet to 37% approval, 51% disapproval, although the Olympic Stadium announcement was not included)

In terms of time, there will be another month or more of deliberations in the upper house. This in itself could lead to further leakage of support for the Abe administration, even if no further problems arise. The other key point is that LDP members in the House of Councillors have traditionally been a lot more independent, and if the House of Councillors’ LDP and coalition party Komeito members get concerned about public opinion, then this could cause trouble for the Abe administration. Some will be up for election mid-2016, after all.

This could lead to either one of a few things. First, the upper house refuses to vote on it and leaves the bill as it is, effectively rejecting the bill. This would force the lower house to pass it with a 2/3rds majority, making for even greater controversy. The other thing that could happen is that the LDP comes to an accommodation with opposition parties, particularly the Japan Innovation Party, and scales back some of the most controversial aspects of the legislation. This would likely mean out of area operations would remain similarly restricted as they are now, although such a bill would still enable the enhancement of US-Japan military cooperation regionally.

The bills may still pass as they are, of course. It really depends on how much political capital Abe wants to spend, and how important it is to him to have the legislation passed in the form it is now.

Extra comment

Abe could twist the arms of LDP-Komeito House of Councillors’ members and have them push through the legislation as it is, or just simply override the HoC. But this will come at a cost. Abe, however, is a particularly determined politician. The obvious choice for any other premier would be to preserve their political capital and come to an accommodation with the moderate elements of the LDP and opposition parties. This would play much better with the public, and Abe could still get a significant amount of what he wants if he so chose to go down this path.

Abe is motivated by various senses of commitment, however.

First, he wishes to see Japan play a greater military role on the global stage, not just regionally, believing that this will enhance Japan’s status among the great powers, and accommodating even his moderate critics would likely undermine the implementation and realisation of this preference. Second, he has to some degree made a rod for his back in promising the US in Congress that he would pass the legislation that he submitted to the Diet. Given how committed Abe is to the alliance, at least symbolically, then he probably feels personally responsible for delivering on the legislation to maintain face.

Third, Abe et al are likely thinking strategically and long-term. There are elements of attempts at なし崩し (chipping away, or in vernacular of security studies, “salami slicing”) about this legislation in the sense that it attempts to not only expand on Japan’s commitments to the US alliance, but also to undermine the operational norms that have restricted even Japan’s post-1970s security policy, such as avoiding the direct use of force and deploying troops to engage in hostilities inside, or occupation of, other nation’s territories (thus becoming a legal belligerent to an international conflict). While it is highly unlikely that the SDF will be doing any of these any time soon, the government has been sufficiently evasive and vague about precisely what the SDF might do in the most extreme scenarios. In responses to questions in parliament, Abe and his ministers have tried to assure the public that is not what the bills are designed to do or permit, but at the same time other responses have suggested that they may not be 100% committed to such assurances. In particular, the government has eschewed using terms like “cannot” or “is not allowed” in reference to continued limitations on SDF overseas activities, in favour of “will not” or “is not in mind.” Clearly this does not completely close off future changes, although even Abe himself has noted on more than one occasion that constitutional revision is now the only option left for further expanding the allowable range of the SDF’s overseas activities.

Japan to conduct maritime and aerial patrols over the South China Sea?

Below are some lightly edited remarks provided to the ever-busy Justin McCurry, writing for the Christian Science Monitor on recent suggestions that Japan may take up a great military role in the South China Sea, here.

The prospect of greater SDF involvement in the SCS has been on the radar for a number of years, but I see the timing of bringing this up as being connected to progress on the US-Japan Revised Guidelines. Greater integration of regional operational activities between the US and Japan will be the likely outcome of the negotiations over the revised guidelines that will be finalized sometime this year.

Japan responding favourably to Admiral Thomas’ statement will demonstrate its commitment to increased “burden sharing” in East Asia through the US-Japan alliance; but I would still imagine this will not be a big focus of the negotiations and debate of security issues in the first half of this year. It is likely to be more of a long-term possibility. I don’t think it is posturing, and Prime Minister Abe and Minister of Defense Nakatani Gen would jump at the opportunity if they had the chance – but it is likely that there is an appreciation that the SDF taking on this role may not go ahead soon if debate over Japan’s security legislation gets particularly heated later this year.

In terms of regional reactions, clearly China will not react well – but I don’t think the PRC will change its behavior one way or another in response to this. I see no evidence that China would dial down its own activity in the region in regards to its territorial tensions with Philippines and Vietnam if the US or Japan were to pull back. In terms of the reaction of ASEAN nations, if Japanese patrols were initially very modest and within the operational framework of the alliance, I expect most ASEAN nations to be unconcerned, and Vietnam and the Philippines will welcome it. An independently acting Japan would be a different prospect, however, but that is not practically possible and is not really what the discussion is about at this point in time.

There are concerns, however, that the Abe administration is being unnecessarily provocative in even mentioning this.

On the face of it, it may indeed look unnecessary and inflammatory. And it is possible that US and Japanese leaders and officials may still judge it to be too inflammatory at a point in time when Japan is trying to improve relations with the PRC.

But if at some point “patrols” in the SCS do go ahead, the issue can be looked at from a wider view than just that of the Sino-Japanese relationship.

Certainly Japan does not have any direct territorial interests in the SCS, but Japan’s own national security will be greatly affected by any instability and conflict in the SCS, making it a legitimate stakeholder. Few countries anywhere are as dependent on regional maritime approaches as Japan is for both its resources and its income. For this reason, Japan has already been playing a security role in the region for some time, through its anti-piracy initiatives in region cooperating with littoral ASEAN nations. It has also been a critical part of the response to natural disasters in the region. It is likely that Japan would not be patrolling the region in an independent fashion at this point in time, and it will be cooperating with the US and perhaps the Australian navies, especially now that Australian warships have embedded with the 7th Fleet.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is whether Japan can in practical terms commit to more than just symbolic cooperation in the SCS. A larger commitment of resources could potentially lead to strategic vacuums opening up elsewhere closer to Japan itself, which is still the SDF’s primary responsibility. Without significantly greater investment in the defense budget, Japan’s power projection capabilities will remain modest. There is a great risk of overextending the MSDF in particular, which may not be strategically very wise. This has been an issue with conservatives like Koizumi and Abe – they have big strategic plans for the SDF and the alliance but they do not always appreciate the strategic and resource risks inherent in widening the range of roles and the geographic scope of operations that Japan’s defense officials do.

That said, the Japanese government is quite sensitive about the possibility of there being a future weakening of US commitment to the region in general, and even a symbolic commitment will allow Japan to start to position itself better in the regional strategic order should the US’ strategic rebalance stagnate in the future.

IS and Japan

Taking my lead from a true pro, in lieu of blog postings, I will from time to time post my thoughts on some current events prompted by media enquiries. These will be rough with minimal light editing. 
The Japanese government will not pay a publicised ransom payment, but based on prior practice, the Japanese government may consider back-channel negotiations. The major problem for any possible ransom payment in this particular case is the nature of IS itself. The US-led campaign is slowly undermining IS’ military and financial well being and this threat to Japan might be a sign of desperation. Any Japanese financial contribution to this could, however, have the impact of enabling IS to continue its brutal oppression in the region as well as directly undermine the US fight against IS. It will also work at cross-purposes against Japan’s own non-military, humanitarian aid to the region that IS seems to be so concerned about. The Japanese government will be in no doubt in this case that paying a sizeable ransom could lead to further instability and atrocities in the region.

Like the Algerian crisis in 2013, this crisis does further highlight Japan’s vulnerability to global terrorism. But in some important ways this case is quite different from the Algerian case. The Japanese public in the past has been much less forgiving of individuals who have sought to place themselves in direct conflict zones, while the Algerian situation will be seen as a direct attack on Japan’s citizens and national interests. Even in reaction to this very brazen attack in Algeria, the Japanese government only went as far as strengthening its ability to use military transportation to evacuate citizens. I’d be inclined to think that if the Algerian attack did not rouse the Japanese public and enable the passing of more substantive security legislation, then this event may not be a game changer.

In practical terms, it is unclear what the Japanese government can do in this situation since it does not have the legal or military capability to undertake special forces or other military operations in the Middle East. Aside from the very unlikely possibility that the US and NATO partners have the necessary intelligence to mount a rescue operation on Japan’s behalf, Japan can do little but express support diplomatically for the fight against terrorism. Looking forward, the best option may be for the Japanese government strengthen the working relationship between the SDF and NATO militaries as it has already sought to do over the last three to four years, since Japan is not likely to build the necessary power projection capabilities any time soon.

Domestic Repercussions

If the two men are executed, then immediate anger will probably strengthen Abe’s argument in the short-term that Japan needs to be more mindful of the international nature of threats to Japan’s security and the need to cooperate with the US and its allies.

If Japan had of been providing military aid to the region, then the narrative might have been different, and it could have hurt Abe. The fact that Japan was providing humanitarian aid and was still targeted will suggest that IS is a particularly dangerous and implacable adversary to the Japanese public. But I doubt that Japan will do much more than provide additional non-military and infrastructure aid at this point in response to the possible tragedy.

However, it will almost certainly inject energy and controversy into the drafting of Japan’s new security legislation later this year. Already, subsequent to the 2014 December election, the Komeito had extracted general commitments in negotiations from the LDP to effectively limit the geographic scope of new so-called “collective self-defense” legislation. Those who are already inclined to see any Japanese coordination with foreign militaries as a negative will see this as evidence of why Japan should continue to be circumspect about taking on a higher military profile, while those wanting to see a higher military profile will see this as evidence that Japan cannot afford to sit back and hope other nations can take care of Japan’s security and interests. It will be a source of controversy, which will probably be unwelcome for Abe as Abe lacks the political skill of Koizumi when it comes to managing the public on highly controversial issues of broad public concern such as Japan’s overseas military presence.

In the long-term, as the anger in Japan subsides, it could complicate the passage of defense legislation later this year if that legislation raises the possibility of Japan providing significant military aid to US and NATO operations in the Middle East. While the Japanese public is slowly becoming more comfortable with the SDF and the US military playing an increased role together in (East Asian) regional security, they are still very sceptical about some Japanese politicians’ claims that the Middle East also represents a pressing concern for Japan’s security requiring a Japanese military response, other than perhaps for protecting sea lanes from pirates. Komeito was probably the big winner from the recent election, and insiders have suggested this meant that one of more contentious pieces of legislation – Japanese minesweeping during an ongoing conflict (possibly in the Middle East) – will probably be off the table later this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if the long-term consequences on CSD legislation were minimal, especially since CSD operations have little to do with what might be required in the current situation.

There has been chatter that Abe might want to let the hostages die, as this might help his agenda for revising the constitution.
Leaving aside the cynicism inherent in such a suggestion, if the arguably more serious Algerian situation did not rouse the Japanese public to support changes allowing direct Japanese military intervention, it seems unlikely that this particular situation will galvanise it. The media impact of this event might be greater than Algeria, but as time passes, concern may subside.

Furthermore, the types of constitutional changes to Article 9 that could pass the Diet and public opinion at this point in time will fall far, far short of allowing high profile rescue operations inside the territory of other nations.