The self-immolation of a man in central Tokyo last month is the latest act of protest against Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. Japanese popular opinion remains committed to a renunciation of militarism. But Japanese elites, under cover of bland excuses and in cooperation with Washington, have set about unravelling this.

Kristin Surak
9 July 2014

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. Demotix/Zaer Belkalaï. All rights reserved.

In 1947, the US wrote into the Japanese Constitution perhaps the most radical retribution for military aggression in the twentieth century: the renunciation of war tout court.  If the battle-weary populace embraced Article Nine of the Constitution wholeheartedly, the occupation forces quickly regretted the heady Wilsonian idealism. When the Korean War broke out, Japan, now ally rather than enemy, was to fall in line.  Thus began the notorious tradition that continues today: a constant reinterpretation of Article Nine’s unadorned declaration that war is to be forever renounced.  

The potent wording of the Article itself is hard to circumnavigate: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, 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. To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”  Perhaps most striking is the extent to which such a radical renunciation – one written by an occupying army – has been embraced within the country as a symbol of the nation.  Whether or not the tremendous presence of atomic bombing in the national memory offers a complete explanation, it is with great pride that most Japanese will tell you that they have renounced war. 

Yet already in 1950 it was decided, under US guidance and against overwhelming public opinion, that if an army was forbidden, military protection might be allowed. The National Police Reserve took up light infantry weapons, becoming a National Safety Force and then, in 1954, a Self Defense Force under the control of the prime minister.  More significantly, the renunciation of war did not preclude a continued foreign military presence.  Japan has hosted everything from aircraft carriers to nuclear warheads on the US-controlled sections of Okinawa (American bases cover nearly 20 percent of the main island).  For several decades, this was enough to serve the needs of “reinterpretation”; it was not until the early 2000s when the real unraveling began.  

From 2001 to 2006, the prime minister sitting atop Tokyo’s Nagatacho political district was Junichiro Koizumi. As an Elvis fan and a flagrant nationalist, he made the perfect counterpart to George Bush Junior. For the first time in nearly 60 years, the Japanese military ventured overseas. Bush duly rewarded Koizumi with a personal tour of Graceland.  The excuse was bland enough – the military personnel were to operate only in a “support” capacity for aid organizations in Afghanistan and in helping to refuel ships in Iraq – but the purpose was clear: the gradual transformation of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces into a full army.  The US wants “interoperability” – a Japanese military so seamlessly integrated with American capacity and demands that only the flags over the ships are different.  The Japanese right wing wants “a normal nation”: a call for pseudo-independence that rarely questions or contradicts the desires of the American hegemon. And they are getting their way.

Shinzō Abe would like to gut the Constitution. His proposals have called for rewriting nearly all of the 103 articles in it. But even with both chambers in parliament behind him he still does not have the support for such a radical overhaul.  Instead, he can only strong-arm the party and its Komeito coalition partner into supporting another reinterpretation of Article Nine, now to allow military attacks in aid of allies – the defence of US warships or shooting down of North Korean missiles aimed at the US are the examples rehashed. True to form, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has welcomed the new stance of the United States’ most imporant regional ally to “play a more proactive role” in maintaining stability within East Asia. 

In turn, the media coverage of the public backlash has been appalling.  If the State Secrets Law, passed in December 2013, did not do enough to ensure that news organizations hold back on stories that might be “damaging” to the country, Abe covered his bases by installing one of his henchmen as the head of the Japan’s national public broadcaster, the NHK. On taking the new job, Katsuto Momii summed up his position on an independent media by stating: “When the government is saying “right,” we can’t say “left”.”  Images of over 10,000 people demonstrating in front of the parliamentary Diet were not carried on the news, nor did the protestor who set himself on fire make it into the Japanese dailies.  Yet opinion polls show that the majority of Japanese oppose the reinterpretation of Article Nine, and only one-third support it. One hopes that a new era of “democracy” is not emerging. 

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