On December 4, 2013, Japan’s National Security Council (NSC) convened for the first time. Certainly, the NSC has been an active security venue under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, conducting both routine and emergency meetings and achieving such notable ends, such as publication of Japan’s first ever National Security Strategy, issuance of the decision to transfer ammunition to Korean peacekeepers in South Sudan, and approval of implementation guidelines that would authorize the first-ever protection of U.S. assets by the Japan Self-Defense Force (SDF).
While the NSC is notable in its own right, a lesser advertised entity indispensable to the NSC is the National Security Secretariat (kokka anzen hoshō kyoku) that came into existence a month later on January 7, 2014. This organization supports all of the NSC’s activities and begs further examination in order to understand its benefits and limitations under the Abe administration as well as its place, present and future, in Japan’s security infrastructure.
Simply put, the NSS is structured to support the roles and activities of the NSC. At the top of the NSS is the secretary-general who is dual-hatted as the national security advisor. There are numerous deputies with responsibilities divided by subject matter and/or region, each with their own staff beneath them. With the exception of the secretary-general, all of the members of the NSS are seconded from other ministries and agencies. Most come from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense (both civilian and Self-Defense Force officials), National Police Agency, and Japan Coast Guard, though there are a handful present from other organizations in the government bureaucracy.
Employing this organizational structure, the NSS fulfills the following implicit and explicit roles:
Secretariat for the NSC: The NSS does the legwork for convening the NSC, recording decisions and disseminating instructions to the interagency.
Counterpart organization for other NSCs: The NSS provides a clear-cut organization with whom foreign National Security Council staff may interact. The fundamental example of this is the secretary-general of the NSS, who serves as the counterpart for foreign national security advisors.
Policy reporting and dissemination: The NSS provides a conduit for foreign affairs and defense-related information to flow between the Kantei (Prime Minister’s Office) and the interagency.
Crisis Response: In the event of a foreign policy or security crisis, the NSS is principally responsible for organizing the interagency response in conjunction with the Kantei’s Crisis Management Center.
Interagency Coordination: In certain cases, the NSS is the lead coordination authority for security initiatives, such as the National Security Strategy, and, as has been highlighted in the press as of late, the upcoming National Defense Program Guideline, contingency planning, and other endeavors.
The NSS certainly maintains important responsibilities, but over the course of four years, several limitations have become apparent – two of which have the greatest impact on NSS capabilities.
First, the NSS is staffed by about only 70 officials. This results in a bandwidth limitation, so although some media outlets have asserted NSS’s “growing presence” or increased influence, it can only go so far. In practical terms, any additional designation of roles means the NSS is taking coordination responsibility.
Second, the NSS is only as effective as the prime minister’s administration allows it to be. Although legislation offers authorities for policy coordination and reporting, the NSS is principally beholden to the activities and direction of the NSC and has no assigned ministries, agencies, or assets beyond its 70 personnel and its facilities. These factors contribute to a reliance upon the political administration to deliver the mandate and impetus for action, unlike other bureaucratic organizations which have their own budgeting cycles, on-going missions, and other routine activities that drive self-sustainment. It also means that the forcing function for the interagency to respond to NSS demands must come from the prime minister and other relevant parties in the NSC. While Prime Minister Abe has relied heavily upon the NSS for his foreign policy and security coordination, future prime ministers may not see the same value in the organization or feel compelled to empower the NSS in its coordination efforts with other ministries and agencies.
In spite of these limitations, the NSS has been a boon for Japanese security, especially for its ability to bolster the activities of the Ministry of Defense (MOD). MOD, the newest and institutionally weakest of Japan’s ministries, has little ability to compel any other ministries or agencies to participate in its defense initiatives. This often left defense officials relegated to do everything in a bubble, meaning the interagency was often unaware and/or lacked consensus on issues pertaining to national security. NSS backing now yields greater interagency buy-in on security priorities. This is especially relevant when it comes to contingency planning, policy agenda-setting, and crisis response.
With contingency planning, the SDF and MOD previously built plans that assumed use of certain infrastructure, transportation networks, communications frequencies, etc, but without interagency validation, those plans were vulnerable to false assumptions that could result in significant operational impact. Inclusion of the NSS as an interagency coordinator in the planning process serves to eliminate those potential seams. Additionally, the NSS provides a stronger voice in policy agenda-setting. With a separate organization that has a direct line to the prime minister and regular ministerial-level meetings, security issues are able to come to fore in cases where they otherwise may have fallen behind other ministries’ priorities.
With regard to crisis response, the NSS supplements capabilities that already extant within the Kantei and Cabinet Secretariat, but offers new benefits to U.S.-Japan alliance coordination efforts. Along with MOD, MOFA, and the Cabinet Secretariat’s Crisis Management Office, NSS is a core member of the Alliance Coordination Mechanism created in 2015. Whereas the primary conduits for alliance coordination were previously stove-piped through MOFA or MOD, the inclusion of NSS offers an inroad to top-down interagency coordination power within the Japanese government. It also means that the NSS can compel the inclusion of other ministries and agencies, as required, to respond to security events demanding an alliance response.
Another benefit from the NSS is continuity of leadership. The National Security Advisor (also the NSS Secretary-General) provides stability that is not typical in ministerial postings. Current NSA Shotaro Yachi has held the position since 2013. There have been four changes in defense minister in the same time frame (including Minister Onodera’s return to the post in 2017). This continuity supports coordination on and implementation of long-term security and foreign policy initiatives.
Finally, the NSS enhances the influence of defense officials within the government. As mentioned earlier, the majority of NSS members come from the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and of those, many are Self-Defense Force officers. This is a change from the onesie-twosie MOD and SDF officials that get seconded to places like the Cabinet Secretariat and Kantei. MOD still may not be institutionally powerful, but this inclusion of defense officials in positions of interagency importance expands its influence.
The Future of the National Security Secretariat
For all of its benefits, long-term viability of the NSS is not a foregone conclusion. The current NSS benefits from Prime Minister Abe’s trust in and reliance on the organization, but this may change with a new administration. With regard to Japan’s security institutions, one of the most important things to observe when a transition of administration occurs between now and 2021 is how the new prime minister uses the NSS. The continued reliance or lack thereof will inevitably shape the NSS’s long term standing in the government bureaucracy.