LDP LEADERSHIP RACE: TWO BIG QUESTIONS TO KONO
Four candidates are clashing head-on in a daily series of animated debates on crucial domestic and international issues as they vie to succeed outgoing Yoshihide Suga as head of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP). The winner of the September 29 election will become prime minister, as the LDP-led coalition controls both chambers of parliament. The candidates are:Taro Kono (58), incumbent minister in charge of administrative reform and coronavirus vaccines; Fumio Kishida (64), former foreign minister; Ms Sanae Takaichi (60), former minister of internal affairs and communications; and Ms Seiko Noda (61), former minister for gender equality.
I wish to first respectfully point out that I can’t quite see Noda as a full-fledged contender. This is her fourth attempt since 2015 to become Japan’s first female prime minister, but she clearly is ill-prepared this time again, with her arguments not solid enough to engage her rivals in substantial debate on such crucial issues as COVID-19, energy, and missile defense. If she truly has set a goal of becoming prime minister, I seriously wonder what she has been doing these past many years.
I also wonder why Toshihiro Nikai (82), the party’s powerful secretary general dubbed a “kingmaker” and head of a 50-member faction, allowed eight of his members to back Noda, who had trouble garnering 20 nominations to stand in the presidential race. Takashi Arimoto, publisher of “Seiron,” a conservative opinion monthly appeared on my regular “Genron” Internet TV news show as a guest last Friday. He explained that the LDP heavyweight has given Noda a helping hand in order to preserve his powerful influence within the party. He pointed out:
“Kono is seen to be the one who will get the short end of the stick from Noda’s entry in the race. If she manages to take away votes from Kono, even if not too many, the race will be that much closer between the three other candidates, which will allow Nikai a chance to decide the outcome in a run-off.”
Nikai obviously wasn’t interested in whether Noda has it in her to be prime minister to begin with, but has the ulterior motive to profit handsomely from his position, according to Arimoto. If the likes of Nikai should continue to exercise their clout in the core of the LDP, I truly fear for the future of the ruling party—and that of Japan.
During the race, which formally began on September 17, there have been several noteworthy moments indicative of the differences of policies and mindset of the rest of the candidates, including when they appeared on Fuji TV’s “Sunday Report” news show on the first day of their official campaign. Veteran journalist Toshiyuki Matsuyama asked the candidates what they think of the US Army preparing to deploy intermediate-range missiles in Japan as part of the US strategy to deter China.
“Any one of you willing to agree to the planned missile deployment plan if you receive a formal US request for approval as prime minister, please raise your hand.”
On September 13, North Korea fired a long-range cruise missile, followed by two short-range ballistic missiles two days later. Prime Minister Suga initially told reporters that the latter two had landed in waters outside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but eight hours later Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi modified the announcement, noting that the two missiles actually landed inside our EEZ. The discrepancy resulted from Japan’s failure to swiftly track the missiles—the latest types designed to change their trajectories irregularly before hitting their targets, different from the conventional ones that follow predetermined trajectories.
Diametrically Opposing Views
It would be all over for Japan if we were to be attacked by these type of missiles, which are possessed by not only North Korea but China and Russia as well. We are definitely faced with a grave situation. At this juncture neither the US nor Japan has an effective means of countering these missiles. That is all the more reason for Japan to equip itself with deterrence powerful enough to discourage hostile nations from attacking Japan. In that sense, journalist Matsuyama’s question to the candidates was certainly legitimate.
Takaichi raised her hand in a flash, stating:
“I believe that is a measure absolutely necessary for the defense of Japan. I recall then US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stating in 2020 that the US wanted to deploy new intermediate-range missiles in Asia. That’s what I believe Japan should proactively request from the US. If our important Pacific ally is also considering deploying long-range missiles it is currently developing, that would be all the better because they will put virtually all of China’s air bases within range. We should seriously pursue this matter by taking this aspect into consideration.”
Takaichi added that Japan ideally should domestically manufacture such missiles. But Kono, who once served as defense minister, presented arguments diametrically opposing hers, claiming:
“In terms of deterrence by the missiles, I wonder if Japan would be able to pull the trigger on our own should the crucial moment come. There would be no guarantee that Japan’s deterrence capabilities would be strengthened by merely deploying a US-made missile system with an American finger on the trigger.”
He went on: “I think it will be necessary for our two nations to discuss this matter a little more prudently before agreeing on role-sharing…(we must first discuss) how to achieve maximum deterrence against China in the whole scheme of the US-Japan alliance…Things like the ability to strike enemy bases that are frequently talked about in Japan…could have the negative effect of creating instability (in the current situation).” Kono then criticized Takaichi’s views, noting:
‟Your idea would only make the hotheads in Japan happy. I don’t think your argument would contribute to a stabilization of Japan-China relations or the trilateral relationship among Japan, the US, and China.”
Takaichi shot back:
“With all due respect, this has absolutely nothing to do with being hotheaded. I believe the missile defense system is absolutely necessary for our nation in order to safeguard the security of our land and our people’s lives. Naturally, the principle of ‘civilian control’ should prevail in this case, so the Japanese government would not let the American side pull the trigger for Japan. Our two nations would have to stringently discuss this rule when the final decision was made to introduce the system to Japan.”
The US Army is rushing to develop intermediate-range missiles. Their introduction to Japan would undoubtedly be a powerful deterrent against North Korea and China, enhancing our homeland defense in line with our national interests.
During his April 16 summit with US President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Suga stated in no uncertain terms that Japan will “strengthen its deterrence and capabilities to cope effectively with crises in tandem with the US…Japan will make every effort to further elevate the US-Japan alliance.” Japan must for its own sake make good on what Suga has pledged to Biden. A specific example would be deploying mid-range missiles to swiftly deter threats from North Kora and China. I find Takaichi’s contention that the missiles are necessary to protect Japan far more convincing than Kono’s abstract assertions that deterrence should be strengthened “in the whole scheme of the US-Japan alliance.”
Preconceptions and Fallacies in Kono’s Remarks
Another comment from Kono during a September 18 debate at the Japan Press Club deserves special mention. In discussing energy, he said: “It has been made clear that electricity from renewable energy will cost less than nuclear power.” He was quoting a cost comparison for 2030 that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced on July 12. (Japan has a goal to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% from 2013 levels by that year.) However, in figuring out the total costs involved in a comprehensive plan to utilize renewable energy sources, including solar, the ministry made the mistake of not including the costs mandatory to secure thermal power generation for backup. The ministry was further guilty of not including the costs for large-capacity battery storage systems needed to accommodate fluctuations in the supply of solar and wind power, as well as fluctuations in peak demand. The ministry has since revised the numbers with apology.
There is no way Kono didn’t know this in his position as a key cabinet member. I suspect he willfully made false assertions despite being fully aware of the ministry’s blunders. In other words, he lied.
Kono simultaneously reiterated his cherished appeal for a swift abolition of the nation’s nuclear fuel recycle scheme, to which Kishida strongly objected. Stopping the scheme would mean the end of the nuclear reprocessing operations at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori, Japan’s first and only such commercial plant, and would make it impossible to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from the ten active nuclear power reactors across the nation. It would also mean that the spent fuel storage pools at these plants would fill up sooner or later, forcing the suspension of their operations. It is said to take 10 million years for high level radioactive waste generated in the final process of reprocessing to become naturally harmless, but just 300 years with a new technology now being developed.
Kishida attempted to point this out but Kono flatly stated that “there is no such technology available at the moment.” The truth of the matter is that GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, an alliance between GE and Hitachi headquartered in Wilmington, North Carolina, has come up with PRISM, a small, fast reactor capable of dramatically reducing toxicity levels in high level radioactive waste. In other words, the technology needed to decontaminate high level radioactive waste in 300 years has already been proven. Kono was mistaken about this point, too.
Preconceptions and fallacies stood out in Kono’s argument about defense and energy, which constitute the very foundation of a nation’s existence. Kono’s arguments make one seriously question his qualifications as our next prime minister.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 968 in the September 30, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)