Two years and six months have passed since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spearheaded the creation of the National Security Council (NSC) to serve as the control tower of foreign and security policies. The Kantei (Prime Minister’s Official Residence) has increased its influence in the council during this time, and the NSC has come to play a more important role in making decisions on whether the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) should engage in overseas operations, the scope of which has been expanded significantly under the newly enacted security laws. However, discussions in the council are kept secret, so it is difficult to examine the policymaking process.
On May 19, a week before the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was to be held, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani came to the Kantei for a “four ministers’ meeting” with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, plus Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso. They talked for about 30 minutes on the Asia-Pacific situation.
This was the 73rd meeting of the “four ministers’ meeting,” which is the core component of the NSC. The group meets two to three times a month on average. The NSC’s predecessor, the Security Council, had too many members, preventing it from holding meetings as planned. It also met only a few times a year, precluding its serving as a venue for candid discussions.
Under the NSC, cabinet members are able to exchange candid views at the new “four ministers’ meeting.”
Ministers sometimes also request the holding of meetings. This is what happened when the decision was made for the SDF to provide ROK forces deployed for UN peacekeeping operations (PKO) in South Sudan with 10,000 rounds of ammunition in December 2013.
The National Security Secretariat (NSS) is the 70-member bureaucratic organization that provides administrative support to the NSC. Its secretary general, Shotaro Yachi has a strong presence. He is a close confidant of Abe who has advised him since the first Abe cabinet as the administrative vice minister of foreign affairs. Aides to foreign leaders also approach Yachi, the NSS chief, because they know that if they negotiate with him, their message will reach Abe directly.
Yachi held secret talks with the close confidants of foreign leaders to lay the groundwork for deals such as the Japan-ROK agreement on the comfort women issue last year or the 2014 agreement on the improvement of Japan-China relations.
The Kantei sets the direction and the Prime Minister’s aides take action to negotiate. A former NSC member indicates that “a system for decisions related to foreign policy and defense to be made not by individual ministries but under the Kantei is now in place.”
The NSC has been given a bigger role since the security laws took effect. It will make decisions following deliberation on survival-threatening situations that require the exercise of the right to collective self-defense and situations having a grave impact that justify providing logistical support to foreign forces in another part of the world.
At the Prime Minister’s discretion, the chief of the Joint Staff may attend the “four ministers’ meeting.” SDF Chief of Staff Katsutoshi Kawano says that, “I am able to listen to the views of the relevant ministers directly and political decisions are made based on our reports.” However, the decision-making process is not visible from the outside.
A senior government official says that what transpires at the “four ministers’ meeting” is top secret. The chief cabinet secretary does report the topics discussed after a meeting has taken place, but the other participants will never answer questions from reporters.
There is also a strong perception that Abe and his confidant Yachi are the ones running the NSC, so there is concern that the NSC may not function after Abe and Yachi are out of office. PHP Institute’s Masashi Kaneko observes, “The NSC will lose influence if it does not remain the hub of decision-making. The prime minister needs to be knowledgeable about security and the NSS chief should be someone who is able to coordinate among the ministries to maximize the use of talent and information. (Slightly abridged)