Free trade agreements and military deregulation in Japan

The author represented the ANSWER Coalition on a weeklong speaking tour against U.S.-Japanese imperialism hosted by the Asia-Wide Campaign (AWC-Japan) from June 16-21, 2017. The speaking tour included a rally and a march in Kyoto, and public forums in Kyoto, Fukuyama, Nagoya, and Kobe.

Japan’s progressive movements tend to oppose the Japanese-U.S. military alliance codified within the 1951 Security Treaty. Revised in 1960, the treaty grants the U.S. open access to Japan’s air, land and sea territory for military purposes.

A dominant tendency within this movement acknowledges the role of U.S. imperialism within Japan’s armed forces, but argues the country has its own military and economic interests aside from the United States.

Because modern, late-stage capitalism is the product of European powers’ pivot to Africa for the slave trade and the pivot to Asian markets in the 1880s, the liberation of Asia and Africa from capitalism is central to the liberation of the whole planet from capitalism and imperialism.

While understanding Japan’s role as a junior imperialist power with the United States is significant for resisting U.S. imperialism, comprehending Japan’s independent economic and military interests are also important for anti-imperialist struggle. For example, the way Japan has responded to the Trump presidency withdrawing the United States from Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is an important development.

The TPP Puzzle

Many activists in Japan have expressed confusion regarding Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the TPP. That is, if the TPP was to be the U.S. capitalist class’s way of exploiting, tax-free, super oppressed labor in Asia Pacific created by decades of U.S. military intervention, then why would Trump back out? That is, why would the U.S. capitalist state decline another free trade agreement that would result in higher rates of profit for many multinational corporations? Many U.S. capitalists were in fact angry at Trump for ruining their projected TPP earnings.

While the answer includes a growing split within the U.S. capitalist class, and Trump’s uninformed turn to some type of racist economic protectionism, what is significant is the way the Japanese capitalist state apparatus has stepped in to assert its own independent interests. That is, with the United States out of the TPP picture, how is Japan moving forward? That is, the absence of the U.S. might mean more investment opportunities in the Asia Pacific, but perhaps less automobile exports that would have gone to the United States due to deregulated tariffs.

Japan’s FTAs

An FTA that had been in the works for years between Japan and the EU was just settled days before the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. It has been argued that the timing of this deal with the G20 sent an intentional message to Trump. That is, it was a direct response to Trump’s protectionism and solution to lost automobile exports.

Again, the TPP was going to help Japan with falling exports. In 2016, for example, exports in Japan fell more than 11 percent. Rather than exporting more automobiles to the United States, Japan has successfully turned to the EU with the signing of the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement signed July 6.

In exchange for lowering tariffs on Japanese automobiles, Tokyo has agreed to dramatically lower tariffs on meat and dairy products for EU producers. The National Pork Producers Council sees the writing on the wall since Japan has been the biggest export market for their products.

Despite its downturn in exports overall, Japan remains the leading supplier of commodities produced by advanced technology to East Asian countries. Japan’s 14 FTAs (with Australia, Brunei, Chile, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, Switzerland, Thailand and Vietnam) have played an important role. Japan is also currently negotiating FTAs with Canada, Colombia, South Korea, and one between Japan, South Korea and China.

Japan’s highly developed capitalist economy tends to suffer from falling profit rates. One counter-acting measure to counter the falling rate of profit is to increase the rate of exploitation (i.e., lower wages).

For example, in 2015, the primary labor law regulating the employment of part-time workers, the Worker Dispatch Act, was revised in the employers benefit. The length of time an employer can maintain an employee’s status as “temporary” is now unlimited.

As a result, the number of dispatch workers in Japan is growing. Around 40 percent of Japan’s workforce is temporary, with high rates of extreme exploitation. By laying out less in the form of wages, production costs are reduced and a little more flexibility exporting commodities is achieved on the backs of workers.

One outcome of this trend is that the number of families on public welfare assistance more than doubled in the last 20 years. More than 16 percent of children in Japan are living in poverty.

Another factor commonly used by the most developed capitalist economies to counter falling profit rates is to export not only goods or use values, but capital itself. For example, between 2015 and 2016, Japan’s investment in Indonesia doubled from roughly $400 million to $900 million.

Japan is also the worlds’ leading exporter of capital goods and the most advanced robotics, labor-saving technology. Such machines are exported from Japan and imported into Indonesia, South Korea and China, for example, to manufacture consumer goods for export.

The FTA between Japan and Indonesia, originally signed in 2008, has tended to favor the more powerful Japan. Throughout renegotiations of the FTA over the years, Indonesia has reduced obstacles for Japanese investment in Indonesia.

Deregulating Japan’s Military

Looking expansively beyond its borders, Japanese capitalists see China, the second-largest economy in the world, as a regional, economic competitor. For example, in 2013, after Beijing declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over the Senkaku islands and surrounding waters of the East China Sea, the Abe government intensified its anti-China position.

Whereas China claims “undisputed sovereignty” in the East China Sea, the United States and Japan side with the Philippines and Vietnam, who both assert sovereignty over the military use of the rocks and shoals as strategic positions in future struggles over economic regional control.

However, such militarist ambitions are difficult to realize with a pacifist Constitution. In 2005-2006, the U.S.-Japanese military alliance was reinforced through a “realignment” plan that would more centrally integrate U.S. and Japanese military alliances. The goal is to transform the Japanese Self-Defense Forces into a ready-for-war army to be deployed, along with U.S. forces, anywhere in the world.

Growing Opposition

The Japanese capitalist class interests in deregulating the military stands in direct opposition to the people of Japan who tend to support the pacifist Constitution and avoiding the horrors of war (especially those that the U.S. military brought to Japan with the use of the worlds’ first and only major nuclear attack). Many people in Japan see their pacifist Constitution as a great advance for humankind and democracy.

Attempting to counter the strong public opposition to the remilitarization of Japan, the Abe government has employed an intense nationalistic propaganda campaign, including patriotic education and using racism to justify the current aggression toward the DPRK and to glorify Japan’s past colonialist occupation of Korea. However, despite these efforts, steps taken to amend Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution will likely result in the continuing fall of Abe’s approval rating.

An indication of this was the Tokyo assembly election on Sunday, July 2, 2017, where Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party suffered a humiliating defeat. While this election does not necessarily mean the undoing of the Abe government, it does call into question Abe’s proposed timeline for reforming Japan’s pacifist Constitution by 2020.

For the faction of Japan’s capitalist class that Prime Minister Abe and his conservative Liberal Democratic Party represent, Article 9 is a barrier to its militaristic ambitions.

Click here to read the full report from the ANSWER Coalition’s participation in a speaking tour against U.S.-Japanese imperialism hosted by the Asia-Wide Campaign (AWC-Japan)

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