Ben Ascione. Photo by Belinda Thompson.

Making choices

28 July 2014

Understanding a country’s foreign policy choices can be challenging; add in a complicated domestic political situation, historic tensions and the abduction of citizens and the path gets very tangled indeed.

That hasn’t deterred Crawford School of Public Policy PhD Scholar Ben Ascione, who is researching the domestic sources of foreign policy in Japan.

“I am interested in explaining the influence of right-wing nationalists on Japanese foreign policy,” Ascione said. “I’m referring here to the right as an umbrella group held together by shared objective of overturning the post-war regime.”

Using three country case studies – China, North Korea and South Korea – as well as the legal restraints on the Japan Self-Defense Forces, Ascione is exploring the key determinants of Japanese foreign policy.

“North Korea is a striking example of Japanese foreign policy where the policy doesn’t maximise Japanese security,” Ascione said.

“The Japanese policy prioritises the resolution of the abduction issue at the expense of progress in denuclearization negotiations. Since 2002, when the then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi signed the Pyongyang Declaration and North Korea admitted to having abducted 13 Japanese citizens, it has been a very sensitive issue.

“A number of the abductees were revealed to have died which caused national outrage in Japan.

“But the failure of the Japanese government to clarify what a realistic resolution of the abduction issue entails has been one barrier to resolving this issue.”

Some progress has been made lately with North Korea agreeing in May to reinvestigate the fates of the unaccounted abductees it claims are deceased, and Japan moving to loosen some of its sanctions. But the hurdles to resolving the issue remain high.

As the Abe Government has recently moved to reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution, the so-called ‘peace clause’ there are further foreign policy shifts ahead. Article 9 forbids the use of force to settle international disputes and restricts self-defence to the ‘minimum necessary level’.

“The constitution, including Article 9, was imposed by the allied forces, primarily the United States, and this is a sore spot for nationalists on the right” he said.

“Abe is at the forefront of this reinterpretation. Within the right-wing nationalist groups there are those who are committed US allies and those who seek an autonomous Japanese foreign policy. Abe has bridged these two groups in order to push his agenda.”

Ascione, who is fluent in Japanese and has studied and lived in Japan for five years, said he hoped his language skills would aid his research.

“Abe’s book, Towards a Beautiful Country was supposed to have been published in English, but never has been,” he said.

“So being able to read Japanese will be an advantage in accessing those materials which haven’t been translated.”

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