Japan’s Battle for Peace

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is pushing the country toward dangerous new militarization.

A Japanese submarine purchased during the country's 1904–05 war with Russia. WIkimedia Commons

On September 18, a massive brawl broke out on the floor of the Japanese Diet as parliamentarians put up a last stand to preserve what many call the country’s “pacifist constitution.” Its Article Nine declares, quite forthrightly, that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

Yet up for vote was a pair of bills that would allow Japan to engage in “collective self-defense” — a move many regard as a sharp shift towards legalizing a full-fledged military.

The political theater began two days earlier when the opposition parties — led by the centrist Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) — barricaded Yoshitada Konoike, chairman of the special committee on security in Japan’s Upper House, in a room to prevent the vote, which could go forward only if he opened a session within a designated committee chamber. For more than nine hours, he remained trapped while outside the capitol building over thirty thousand protestors called throughout the night for the abolition of war and for Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s resignation.

Finally, in wee hours of Thursday morning, Konoike promised that if allowed to exit for a moment of respite, he would gladly return to his confines before 8:50 AM. The DPJ took the bait. At 9 AM, Konoike reappeared, but in the committee chamber to open the session. With the clock ticking, opposition parties continued to use all tactics at their disposal to delay the vote — plodding “cow walks” to the ballot box, filibuster-like speeches celebrating pacifism, and motion of no-confidence lodged at Konoike.

But by 2 AM Saturday morning, the twin bills were passed. The country’s self-defense forces would be able to guard not only Japan, but be deployed to defend other countries, as well.

Though the standoff was dramatic, the conclusion was preordained. The more powerful Lower House, where Abe ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner Komeito holds a two-thirds majority, passed the security measures in July. With a simple majority in the Upper House, the ruling coalition was sure to see them through the second chamber.

But Abe’s legislative strength should not be confused with popular appeal or political capacity; it is the absence of challengers that cements his grip on power. His reelection in December 2014 saw voters staying home in record numbers. For first time in post-war history, only half the population turned up at the polls, and only one in four eligible voters wrote Abe’s name on their ballot. Yet he won by a “landslide.”

Within the LDP, Abe neutralized his main challenger, Shigeru Ishiba, through the allocation of unappetizing cabinet posts. Outside the LDP, no party has held much traction since the DPJ fell from power in 2012, unable to make good on its Blairite agenda. With characteristic ideological vapidity, it is now joining with the right-wing nationalists of the Japan Restoration Party to challenge Abe’s majority in the Upper House in next year’s elections.

Meanwhile, the resurgence of the Japanese Communist Party, which nearly tripled its parliamentary representation to twenty-one seats last December, registers the broad dissatisfaction with the status quo.

If Abe faced only weak political challenge, he still had the Japanese people to deal with, and he extended the parliamentary session for a nearly unprecedented ninety-five days to try to win over a public overwhelmingly opposed to the bills. Article Nine, though crafted by American occupation forces in the aftermath of World War II, boasts great popular support: the majority of the Japanese do not want to see it revised, and two-thirds are opposed Abe’s reinterpretation.

When the people demanded a clear justification of the new reading, Abe responded with several ham-fisted attempts that underscored just how out of touch he was. On one television program, he played with a set of dollhouses and figurines to illustrate how collective self-defense works in the case of house fires — going to war is nothing like calling a fire station, came the response. The LDP then released a public relations video in which an older man explains key defense issues to a young woman. Almost immediately a clever spoof that mocked the patronizing tone went viral on YouTube.

The spoof worked. On the eve of the vote, still only 29 percent of the public supported the measures, while 55 percent remained firmly against them. Abe’s popularity plummeted from 51 percent in May to 39 percent at the bills’ passage.

Throughout the summer, thousands took to the streets, with the largest demonstrations gathering more than one hundred thousand at their height. Heading the coalition were the familiar faces of long-standing pacifist groups, bolstered by activists fresh from the post-3/11 anti-nuclear movement. Joining them were the SEALDs (Students Emergency Action League for Liberal Democracy), a media-savvy organization of twenty-somethings that brought out the crowds to the Diet.

To see anti-war students on the streets conjured up images of the ANPO movement of 1960 that heroically fought against the revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty, which ultimately committed the US to defend Japan and Japan to cede land to American bases.

But rather than looking back, SEALD representatives eagerly drew parallels to other youth-led protests in Asia, like Hong Kong’s Occupy Central. Unlike their umbrella-wielding counterparts, however, their tactics have remained firmly within the mainstream and the organization has carefully distanced itself from the leftist politics of their more radical predecessors.

Activists called for a “return to pacifism,” a noble demand, yet somewhat starry-eyed. Since 1954, Japan’s Article Nine has been read to allow a standing army under the label Self-Defense Forces (SDF), and the economic powerhouse boasts the seventh largest military budget in the world.

If Japan has maintained the capacity to defend its territory (helped by America’s Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Yokohama), the country has extended its martial remit beyond its borders with great caution. Only since 1992 has the SDF been able to take part in United Nations peacekeeping missions, and only since 2004 has it taken part in non-military rear-guard support.

Slowly Japan is becoming a “normal nation” once again. Still Article Nine, which declares that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” remains a drag on the process. Abe would like to see it overhauled to eliminate the renunciation of the “right to belligerency” and add phrasing that designates the Prime Minister the “supreme commander” of a “national defense military.”

But to do so requires a two-thirds majority in both the Lower and Upper Houses and a simple majority of the popular vote. And despite Abe’s efforts, the public does not want to give up the “Peace Article.”

For now, the Prime Minister is building momentum to lower the threshold to simple majorities in the Diet as well. Once changed, the LDP proposes to rewrite nearly all articles and substantially dilute the protection of individual rights against the state.

But constitutional revision will take time, and Abe promised Washington in April this year that he would deliver a new global focus to Japan’s military operations. Substantial reinterpretation remained the only option, and “collective self-defense” became the alibi. It’s hard to imagine that the United States, which spends as much on its military as China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, India, and Germany combined, would need Japan to come to its aid, but this is the explanation that was trotted out.

If this is not the first time that Japan relaxed its reading of Article Nine, what’s striking in the present case is how Abe has imposed his new interpretation. In Japan, as in most functioning democracies, the courts are vested with the authority to determine the meaning of the constitution and the constitutionality of laws. But Abe, in a gross display of executive overstretch, appointed a set of handpicked experts in July 2014 to declare that the law permits collective self-defense.

To bolster support for the subsequent security bills that would allow the SDF to use military force to defend not merely Japan but its allies as well, he called three of the country’s most prominent constitutional experts to testify before the Diet. In an unexpected move, all three declared the bills unconstitutional, as did the national bar association.

Blindsided, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshide Suga hastily asserted that many other constitutional scholars would find legal support for the legislation. But in the end, he could scrape up only three names, all of who are members of the ultranationalist group Nippon Kaigi. The nightly news program Hodo Station followed up with a survey of 150 constitutional experts and found, again, only three who said the bills did not violate the constitution.

Democracy has rarely carried the day on defense matters for America’s “pooch in the Pacific.” In 1960, over one million people took to the streets to protest the revision of the ANPO Treaty. The LDP, with a police escort of five hundred, rammed the treaty through in a snap midnight session that was held without informing the opposition.

Chief advocate of the thickening military alliance was then Prime Minister Nobosuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather. Imprisoned for Class-A war crimes — Kishi organized the slave labor system that drove industrialization during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria — he was released before trial in 1948 when the US government decided that he would better serve the country as a staunchly pro-American leader.

Like grandfather, the grandson too has cleaved firmly to the US. Okinawa is perhaps the most direct victim of the stance. American bases now occupy 20 percent of the main island, and the US government has plans to expand yet further by building a new facility at Henoko to replace the aging Futenma base. What started out as a proposal for a helipad in 1996 has since become a gigantic project requiring 160 hectares to be reclaimed from the sea to support two runways, each over one mile long, and a deep sea dock.

Facing mass opposition in Okinawa, an outgoing governor approved the start of construction behind closed doors and under questionable legal mandate (to avoid the protesters, he escaped his office through a back entrance).

Since December, Governor Takeshi Onaga, a former LDP member who broke rank, has resumed the long-standing fight against the dictates of Tokyo and Washington. Yet citizens on the Japanese “mainland” rarely get wind of these protests; the mainstream media suppresses its coverage or follows the government line.

Abe, of course, is not one to call them out. Last year his State Secrets Law came into effect, which dictates prison terms of up to five years for journalists who encourage leaks of designated information, vaguely defined. Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning might welcome such a fate.

For decades, the US has pushed Japan to relax or revise Article Nine and has stood behind all reinterpretations. Its current designs are for the ally to shoulder more costs (as if the annual “host fee” of $1.5 billion that Tokyo pays Washington to shelter its war machines on the archipelago isn’t enough). One way to achieve this is through “interoperability,” or the smooth integration of the two military apparatuses, transforming the Japanese forces into an outgrowth of America’s.

A second method is for Japan to ratchet up military production. One consequence of Abe’s new reading of the constitution is that Japan can now export arms for the first time since World War II.

Manufacturing giants like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries are not the only ones cheering. Under Washington’s encouragement, Australia is slated to become Japan’s first major customer in an agreement to build twelve Soryu submarines to replace its aging fleet.

With deals like these negotiated behind the scenes, it’s small wonder that the top American brass have implored Congress that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is critical to national security. But as military-economic ties thicken, a nominally independent set of armed forces may make for a more dangerously dependent Japan.