The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward reporter Mizuki Okada interviewed a veteran lawmaker of the House of Representatives and opposition party member Shu Watanabe on May 15. Watanabe—who until recently was member of the Party of Hope (Kibo no To)—is one of the founding members of the new opposition party, the Democratic Party for the People.
He was a member of a bipartisan delegation that visited Washington, DC, from April 30 to May 6 with families of Japanese abducted by North Korea. They urged the United States government to support Japan’s position that all victims of North Korean abduction must be returned to their home country, together and at once.
Watanabe emphasizes that “support by all of Japan, including both the ruling parties and opposition parties,” is demanded to resolve the abduction issue. He points out there are still politicians in Japan who feel senses of guilt regarding conciliatory positions they took in the past toward North Korea.
He also discusses the changes in opposition party alignments, including the merger of the former Democratic Party of Japan and the Party of Hope into the new Democratic Party for the People. He speaks about the goals of the new party and how it will face off with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration.
Who did you meet and what did you appeal in DC?
The family members of Japanese abductees and I met with officials of the U.S. State Department, Defense Department, and White House National Security staff of the Republican Trump administration. We asked that they help assure the abduction issue is taken up at the Trump-Kim summit on June 12 in Singapore.
Some people say that Japanese opposition parties take a pessimistic view and are reluctant to make commitments on the abduction issue. What do you think about this view?
Historically, some Japanese political parties tried a conciliatory approach to North Korea. Before revelations of the abductions by North Korea, politicians, including members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), formed a union of Diet members to promote Japan-North Korea relations. There were also political parties and individual politicians that held stronger sympathy for North Korea than for South Korea.
For example, on September 26, 1990, the ruling LDP’s veteran leader Shin Kanemaru and Makoto Tanabe, chairman of the Japan Socialist Party (now Social Democratic Party of Japan), both men of considerable influence within their respective ruling and opposition parties, met with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. The talks sought regular communication and diplomatic normalization. North Korea, however, had been secretly abusing the goodwill of the Japan side, including abducting and using Japanese people for training North Korea’s spies. There might be some politicians and political parties who still feel regret over the conciliatory positions they took in the past toward North Korea.
However, the abduction issue was eventually revealed. What we need now is the support of every Japanese, including politicians from both the ruling parties and the opposition parties. Together, we should make every effort to secure the quick return of all victims from North Korea.
How do you deal with the abduction issue in the months ahead?
The Japanese side should repeatedly urge the U.S. side to ensure the abduction issue is placed on the same level as the nuclear and missile issues for the Trump-Kim summit in June—as a condition for securing the continuity of Kim’s regime, as the North’s leader Kim Jong-un insists. I am frustrated that Japan is not able to solve this issue by ourselves, but instead must make ourselves beholden by asking for the United States’ support. Right now, though, we have no way of dealing with the issue on our own.
Some three days after the abductees’ families and you came back to Tokyo, three Americans who had been detained by North Korea returned to the U.S. How did you feel at that time?
When I watched the scene of U.S. President Trump at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland welcoming home the three Americans, I could see his face showing satisfaction with his accomplishment. I felt a strong hunger to have the same scene in our country, and felt irritated at why we, in Japan, cannot realize the return of our own Japanese citizens held in North Korea.
What can Japan do to deal with this problem?
I met one country’s representative to the United Nations in New York who asked me about the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chosen Soren), which worships the Kim dynasty and represents North Korea’s interests. I was asked why the Japanese government is calling for cooperation from the world, including harsh economic sanctions against North Korea, while Japan overlooks—or outright allows—the Chosen Soren to engage in economic activities that benefit North Korea.
I found that people around the world feel this behavior is incoherent. If North Korea continues to maintain its uncooperative and deceptive attitude, Japan should consider imposing economic sanctions against the Chosen Soren.
Before the Trump-Kim summit in June, I want to ask all of Japan’s political parties to approve a bipartisan parliamentary resolution in both the upper and lower houses of the Diet. The resolution will demonstrate that the allegations against North Korea on the abduction issue are on an equal footing with the nuclear and missile issues as the most important and urgent problems requiring resolution by North Korea. That is the consensus of all Japanese people.
Earlier this month, the two major opposition parties—the Party of Hope (Kibo no To) which you belonged to previously, and the Democratic Party of Japan—decided to merge into one party, the Democratic Party for the People. What is the aim of the new party?
From the perspective of foreigners, it must seem as though Japan’s political parties change names too frequently. Except for the LDP and the Communist Party of Japan, there have been plenty of new party names and affiliations in the last few years. It is my hope that this time will be the final merger into an effective opposition party in Japanese politics. What we aim is to regenerate the opposition from a confronting party into a problem solving party.
Our party consists of young Diet members. I think the average age is around 45. While depopulation and innovations in artificial intelligence (AI) are proceeding, we want to consider how to support human functions, not just replace humans with information technologies and machines.
Japanese people are known for tolerance and excellence in their work. We have the saying, “You should work hard even if no one is watching” and also, “The sun is watching in case you play fast and loose.” (The sun is deified in Japan as icon of the sun god, often called “Otento-sama.”) In my view, we should be cautious about entrusting jobs to machines and we should take care not to diminish our excellence as humans. Machines have limits if you want to produce things of fine and detailed quality. Machines also have limits to making people and society comfortable. I want to consider how to make a comfortable society through advancing human services such as caregiving and paying attention to the environment in which we dwell.
How will the new party face Shinzo Abe’s administration?
The co-leaders of our party both have specialized economics and financial backgrounds. Yuichiro Tamaki came from the Ministry of Finance, and Kohei Otsuka came from the Central Bank of Japan. I want to see the new party become a good economic policy maker.
Considering the current state of Japan’s economy, the easy-money policy of Abenomics has been implemented, but we will see an exit in the future. At that time, we will need to beg Japanese voters to consider how to pay for the additional tax revenues that are needed. This needs to be thought through before we get there.
We should also construct tax and administrative systems to promote the sharing of enterprises’ internal reserves and profits for the common good. For example, companies that contribute to the common good by carrying out services that government agencies cannot achieve—these enterprises would be given tax breaks.
The point is, we want to be a good policy-making party.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for discussions about constitutional reform. What do you think?
From the perspective of a member of the opposition party, I am not afraid of discussing reforming the Constitution. Firstly, it is important to argue how to defend our nation. We need to consider the future of the U.S. military in Korea, which assumes the burden of East Asia’s security with U.S. armed forces in Japan. We need to predict the possibility of the withdrawal or shrinking of the U.S. military in South Korea, depending on Korean Peninsula situation.
It is also important to consider the trends in China’s behavior under President Xi Jinping. Some people say that China has a vision to divide the Pacific into west and east, and then hand the U.S. a line about joint control. We must demand to be part of the discussion about how we will maintain the security of our own nation while China is expanding its influence and aggression in the East China Sea, including the Senkaku islands, Ishigaki-city in Okinawa prefecture, and the South China Sea.
In my view, I prefer to see the construction of a new fundamental law on national security to reforming the Constitution. I would envision stipulating in the fundamental law that the Japan Self-Defense Forces are an organization containing special armed forces. That is a realistic way to address the needs of Japan’s national security.