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Japan's Izumi makes first international appearance, draws firm contrast with hawks

The leader of the country's largest opposition party shared his views on Russia, Ukraine, and the threat of nuclear war.

Reporting | Asia-Pacific

In his first international speaking engagement since becoming the head of the largest opposition party of Japan, Kenta Izumi of the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) shared his views on a wide range of issues, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to nuclear weapons.

Speaking during a Center for American Progress event, Izumi’s views on several critical issues differed starkly from the positions held by the foreign policy establishments in both Washington and Tokyo. Views held by liberal politicians in Japan are often ignored or downplayed by mainstream Japanese and U.S. politicians and media, or incorrectly labeled as “anti-U.S.” In reality, Izumi’s views represent large numbers of Japanese who want to uphold the U.S.-Japan alliance while avoiding being dragged into a worsening Sino-U.S. rivalry.

Kenta Izumi leads the CDP of Japan — a position he has held since November 2021. The 47-year-old leader has been tasked with winning more seats in the upcoming election in the House of Councillors, or the upper house in the National Diet of Japan. CDP currently holds 44 of 248 seats in the upper house and 96 of 265 seats in the lower house. 

On Ukraine and the threat of escalation to the threat of nuclear conflict, Izumi largely echoed the views of most in Washington and Tokyo by condemning Vladimir Putin for threatening to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. As the only country to suffer from nuclear weapons, Japan abhors the “immoral and inhumane practice of indiscriminate genocide without regard for human dignity” caused by nuclear weapons, Izumi noted. “Nuclear weapons must never be used again. Threat of use should not be allowed either.”

Where Izumi differed was on the issue of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). “Nuclear deterrence should be acknowledged to a certain extent, but the Japanese government should pave the way toward nuclear abolition,” he stated. Without such a goal, “arrogance of major powers” can lead us to World War III, Izumi warned. Some members of Congress have called for the United States to accede to the TPNW, as have civil society organizations like International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, but the foreign policy community is against it for fear that it will undermine U.S. security relationships with allies.  

On the issue of China and Japan’s defense posture, Izumi expressed concerns for the people in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan and highlighted the importance of standing up for universally-held values. At the same time, Izumi stressed that it’s important to retain communication and dialogue with China. “We have long historical, cultural ties. We are neighbors,” Izumi said. Similarly, on the news that the U.S. and Japan are considering deploying American intermediate-range missiles to Japan, Izumi warned that such a move would put Japan in the center of U.S.-China competition and urged Japan to deploy its diplomatic skills to reduce tensions in the region.

Izumi also noted ongoing discussions in Tokyo regarding Japan’s defensive capabilities and the possibility of raising its defense budget from over 1 to 2 percent of its GDP. However, he said that such a change could “adversely affect stability and lead to other countries distrusting Japan, which will worsen Japan’s security dilemma.”

According to Tokyo Shimbun, Japan's ratio of defense spending to GDP in 2021 according to NATO standards is already 1.24 percent when including Self-Defense Forces pensions, Coast Guard expenditures, and peacekeeping operations-related spending, and is higher than 1.09 percent (6.17 trillion yen) reported by most news outlets. Raising it even further without a consultative process could trigger blowback from pacifist elements of Japanese society — a point rarely emphasized in discussions in Washington and Tokyo about Japan’s defense spending.

Izumi described U.S.-Japan relations as a “cornerstone” of Japan’s foreign policy — an oft-used language to describe the alliance. At the same time, Izumi voiced concerns about the situation in Okinawa Prefecture, where U.S. military bases in Japan are concentrated. Accidents involving U.S. forces in the region continue to disrupt lives; for example, drinking water contaminated by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are believed to endanger local residents of Okinawa. This incident and the broader issue of tensions in Okinawa are not well-understood in Washington. 

Izumi closed his remarks by noting that he has always been inspired by American civil society. “America is a country of diversity. Its strength lies in the depth of its civil society.” Izumi thanked the United States and American society for their contributions to foreign policy. Indeed, more frequent exchanges between American and Japanese officials of all parties and affiliations would help broaden understanding between the two countries and ensure that all diverse perspectives are considered. 

September 7, 2020, Tokyo, Japan - Japan's opposition Democratic party for the People policy speaker Kenta Izumi (L) speaks as he and Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano (R) hold a press conference in Tokyo on Monday, September 7, 2020. Japan's opposition parties will form the new coalition party while Edano and Izumi will run for the leadership election. (Photo by Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO) No Use China. No Use Taiwan. No Use Korea. No Use Japan.
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