Beyond Yasukuni: Japan's march towards militarism

From constitutional revisions to education reform, the Japanese government is intent on undoing the country's pacifist fundamentals. 

Saul Takahashi
5 March 2014

Recent developments in Japan have worried outside observers, in particular since the visit by the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to the Yasukuni shrine late last December, the first Japanese prime minister to do so in seven years. The visit was followed with predictable vilification by the governments of China and South Korea, but the Japanese population was stunned by the swift condemnation of other important international partners, including the United States, the European Union and Russia.

The Yasukuni issue is an emotive one in Japan, one which does not lend itself to simplistic right and left divisions (for example Japanese big business, mindful of the need to maintain good relations with its international trading partners, has been largely critical of Abe’s visit.) Nevertheless, Yasukuni is really a sideshow, almost a distraction from the truly alarming moves that the current government has been making towards militarism, including the government’s stated goal to scrap the pacifist Article 9 of the constitution.

Japan: the next merchant of death

The article states 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”. Though Japan maintains a military euphemistically known as the Self-Defence Force, the pacifist intentions of the article are clear, and it has acted as an overarching framework (and constraint) for all Japanese diplomacy since the end of World War II. It has also been a constant imposition for the conservative politicians of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has crusaded for the revision of this article since the party’s forming in 1955.

The lion’s share of attention, both domestically and abroad, to the constitutional debate in Japan has focused on the efforts of successive governments to alter this article to allow the establishment of a ‘proper’ military and the exercise of collective self-defence, currently forbidden under the official interpretation of the Constitution. The government also created controversy when it announced in late 2013 that it would ease its strict restrictions on weapons exports, opening the door to joint weapons development and a potential role for Japan as one of the next leading global merchants of death (unlike Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, Japanese big business is very excited about this move, and indeed has been pushing for it for years).

In late February, it came to light that, as part of the easing of its restrictions, the government intends to allow the export of weapons to countries that are currently party to a conflict, which has been expressly forbidden under government policy up till now to ensure that Japan does not fuel conflict as major weapons exporting countries did (and do). Some observers have expressed concern that this change in policy is at least partially driven by a desire to join the United States in arming Israel – meaning Japanese weapons could aid the oppression and occupation of the Palestinian people and military operations in Gaza, Iran or Lebanon.

The agenda against human rights 

More alarming than these developments are the current government’s plans to revise other sections of the constitution, which go far beyond Article 9 (and the scant media attention given to these plans within mainstream media in Japan). A draft revised constitution published by the LDP has grave human rights implications, and threatens a return to the arbitrary ‘security’ powers of the military government in the 1930s and 40s, when suspected political opponents were detained and tortured at will. 

The draft revised constitution published in April 2012 is straight out of a dictator’s handbook. It includes sweeping restrictions on fundamental rights, stating that the rights of the people to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” could be legitimately restrained by “public interest and public order”. The right to freedom of expression and assembly are also subjected to this new “public interest” restriction – a particularly worrying development given the new Designated Secrets Act, which was rammed through parliament in December above howls of national and international protest. 

This act defines broad categories of information that can be designated secret at the whim of the government, together with extremely high penalties for leaking secrets (eg ten years imprisonment). In response to the outcry, the prime minister announced at the eleventh hour the creation of a panel of independent experts that would advise on criteria for designation. The panel met for the first time in January, and the minutes are – you guessed it – secret

The current constitution already includes a restriction on rights in the name of public welfare, but this has been widely interpreted to mean that the executive has to show that any restriction is necessary (and proportionate) for the protection of other rights. Unhappy with this primacy of human rights protection, the LDP lamely argues in the FAQ issued with the draft that “public interest” is somehow a more concrete concept transcending trivial questions of individual rights. 

Clearly, the LDP believes that the executive should be entrusted with defining the public interest in each specific case, a sure blank cheque for arbitrary actions. In his personal blog, Shigeru Ishiba, the chief whip of the LDP, branded peaceful protesters against the Designated Secrets Act as “terrorists” – an ominous sign as to how the government plans to interpret the public interest criterion. 

The current constitution prohibits torture or cruel punishments “under any circumstances”. In the LDP’s draft, the phrase “under any circumstances” is gone, suggesting that the government believes, in flagrant violation of international law, that torture could be justified under some circumstances. This is particularly grave given that rampant and systemic ill treatment in detention facilities, in particular during pre-trial detention, is one of the longest standing human rights abuses in Japan. This problem has been documented extensively by international and Japanese NGOs and the Japanese Bar Association and was reiterated recently by the UN Committee against Torture, which listed extensive human rights problems related to the current system of pretrial detention. Abe dismissed these comments, stating that they were not legally binding. None of this bodes well for the future of human rights in Japan.

Education reform – all hail the flag

The government’s ability to push forward these revisions is an open question, since changes to the constitution require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament and majority support in a referendum. On the other hand, dramatically changing the face of Japanese education has been much easier.

From the period of industrialisation through to the end of the war, education in Japan was geared predominantly towards producing obedient servants of the Emperor and, by extension, the military. All the older generation remember reciting the Emperor’s Rescript on Education, instructing the Emperor’s subjects to “offer [themselves] courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne”. They also learned grammar through rote citations of saita saita sakura ga saita, susume susume heitai susume (“the cherry blossoms bloom, onward the solders advance”).

Japanese post-war education was framed with the explicit goal of building democratic values and preventing the nationalistic education of the past. Unsurprisingly the LDP is unhappy with this, arguing that schools have promoted a “self-flogging” view of the country’s culture and modern history. Successive conservative governments have made attempts to exert more political control over the powerful local education councils (who decide, inter alia, which of the approved textbooks to use in the district) and to break the staunchly leftist national teachers' union.

In 1999 the parliament passed a law requiring all state schools to display the flag at commencement ceremonies, and all teachers (though not necessarily students) to stand and sing the anthem – both extremely controversial in the Japanese context because of their close connection with militarism. State school teachers are regularly disciplined because of their refusal to stand during the anthem and even for allegedly only mouthing the lyrics, as thought police of the school administration have been instructed to stand by teachers and listen with ears pricked, to ascertain whether they are truly singing.

Numerous court cases arguing the unconstitutionality of these punishments (and of the law itself) have gone nowhere, with the Supreme Court stating that standing for and singing the anthem was merely “customary and ceremonial”. In one case, seven secondary school teachers in Tokyo who refused to stand were each docked a month’s pay for this expression of their conscience. In September 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated this punishment, judging it disproportionate, after which the municipality cynically issued formal warnings to the group to ensure their employment records were marred. And if the government has its way with constitutional reform, the people would be legally required to “respect the national flag and the anthem” –justifying further demands for shows of loyalty.

In 2005, amendments were made to the Basic Act on Education adding “respect for tradition and culture” and “love of our country and of the homeland” as one of the objectives of education. In an ominous move seemingly aimed at reintroducing conscription, the LDP’s revised constitution also dictates that the people must “proactively defend the nation and the homeland with pride and spirit”. Very similar language also features in the new national security strategy adopted in December 2013; the strategy states “it is vital that each citizen understands that national security is not a distant issue … the government will take measures to foster love of our country and of the homeland”. Clearly, education reforms are being undertaken with these national security objectives in mind. 

Sure enough, in November 2013, the education minister announced a plan for new guidelines requiring textbooks to be sufficiently “patriotic” for approval. An indication as to the metric of patriotism, the guidelines also state that textbooks should reflect the government position on particular issues, an obviously worrying step given the many efforts of successive governments in whitewashing wartime atrocities in school textbooks.

Equally sinister is the promotion of the ethics course within the curriculum. Currently all Japanese schoolchildren have a course on ethics throughout their mandatory schooling, but this is somewhat ill defined, with much left up to individual teachers. In late December 2013, a government appointed panel recommended that ethics be promoted to a formal subject within the curriculum. Though the panel stated that ethics should continue to be an unmarked course (ie students would not be marked), this change means that there will be a national outline of its content and a textbook. With the new requirements for promotion of patriotism through textbooks, there are serious concerns that the new ethics course will become nationalist indoctrination.  

The Tokyo of 2020

These debates are longstanding and predate Abe’s premiership. The many elements at play include the stagnation of Japan’s economy since the burst of the “bubble” in 1991, neoliberal reforms pushed forward since the 1990s, the consequential explosion in numbers of un- and under-employed youth (many of whom have proven susceptible to populist propaganda of all sorts) and the perceived threat from a politically and economically rising China.

It would be foolish to say that the current trends are all Abe’s fault. Nevertheless, it is also true that Abe is personally committed to these right-wing reforms in a way that few other prime ministers have been, and that he has managed to present them as a cure for the country’s ills. History shows that a public constantly under threat of losing their pay cheque and their status in the social hierarchy, as is currently the case with the majority of Japanese, provides fertile ground for fascism.

One – perhaps the only one – of Abe’s diplomatic victories has been the selection of Tokyo as the site for the summer Olympics in 2020 (a feat achieved only with Abe’s disingenuous assurances to the selection committee that the ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukushima was “under control”). The government is doing its best to draw parallels with the first time Tokyo held the Olympic games in 1964, when a confident nation boasted its technological achievements and went on to become one of the global economic powerhouses. In fact, the Olympics had also been scheduled for Tokyo in 1940, but were cancelled among growing international opprobrium against Japanese militarism and its war in China. If Abe has his way, the Tokyo of 2020 may very well resemble that of 1940, rather than 1964. In many aspects, it already does.

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