The newly established national security bureau is designed to coordinate Japan’s foreign and security policies, but its first order of business may be to repair damage caused by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s actions.
“I hope it will play a major role in a control tower function to protect national interests as well as the lives and property of the people,” Abe said Jan. 7 at a ceremony marking the start of the bureau under the National Security Council.
Abe picked Shotaro Yachi, a long-time foreign policy adviser, to head the bureau. Yachi has experience in helping to thaw Japan’s icy relations with China.
But high on Yachi’s agenda is a visit to Washington later in January to meet with his counterparts in the National Security Council on which the Japanese version is modeled.
Rather than explain what the Japanese council intends to do, Yachi may have to spend more time addressing U.S. concerns over Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in late December. The State Department issued a statement that said Washington was “disappointed” about the pilgrimage to the shrine that memorializes Japan’s war dead along with 14 Class-A war criminals.
Any disharmony with the United States will only make it more difficult for Japan to deal with China and North Korea.
“I want to exchange greetings with my counterparts in various nations in order to have them recognize that Japan now also has an NSC,” Yachi told reporters about his visit to the United States.
Yachi has been trying to play down expectations for the bureau.
He recently said: “Just because (the bureau) has been established, it does not mean that everything will start going great. I hope it will be properly evaluated if it does turn out to function better than expected.”
Abe’s Yasukuni visit has also made difficult trying to repair ties with South Korea. An improvement in that relationship would help Japan obtain intelligence about North Korea from Seoul.
However, negotiations have stalled on signing a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) that would allow Japan and South Korea to share military intelligence.
Despite strong public opposition, the Abe administration also forced through a state secrets protection bill in December in part because it wanted to enable the national security bureau to share sensitive intelligence with foreign nations. But the law does not require the NSC to compile minutes of its meetings, meaning it may be difficult in the future to examine how national security policy was actually made.
Abe administration officials may be hoping that Yachi’s experience can turn the bureau into a successful one.
He served as vice foreign minister during Abe’s first stint as prime minister, a time when Japan’s relations with China had soured because of repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.
Yachi advised Abe to improve relations with China through a policy of building a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests. That led to meetings between Abe and Chinese leaders.
Yachi has also fallen in line with Abe’s intent to change the government interpretation of the Constitution to allow for the exercise of the right of collective self-defense.
When Abe became prime minister again in December 2012, Yachi was named a special adviser to the Cabinet. Along with being appointed head of the national security bureau, Yachi has had his post upgraded to give him greater access to high-ranking officials of foreign governments, according to a senior government official.
Assistant chief Cabinet secretaries originally from the foreign and defense ministries will be Yachi’s deputies in the national security bureau.
Below those three will be three councilors from the two ministries and the Self-Defense Forces. Six teams handling specific policy areas will be headed by councilors at the same level as ministerial division chiefs.
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