NAGASAKI – Peace activists are divided but many are guardedly optimistic on what to expect after the crushing election defeat suffered by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party.
At rallies to mark the 62nd anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, several pacifist opinion leaders said they see signs of change to what they view has been a “conservative swing” in Japanese society.
Shingo Fukuyama, secretary general of the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs, or Gensuikin, which arranged a series of peace forums in Osaka, Hiroshima and Nagasaki this summer, said events may be breaking in the organization’s favor.
“We have to properly realize that a season of political struggle has begun in Japan,” he said, referring to such policy areas as nuclear disarmament, constitutional revision and developments in the security alliance with the United States. “It is time for us to stand firm.”
“Being engaged in international exchanges on the issues of nuclear weapons and peace, the most painful thing over the past few years has been the rise in Japan of a militaristic mood, as represented by Mr. Abe,” said Akira Kawasaki, an executive committee member of the nongovernmental organization Peace Boat.
Until last year, peace groups saw little need to appeal for the preservation of the postwar Constitution, Fukuyama said, thanks to a shared perception that the pacifist charter had remained relevant, but this is no longer the case.
Last October, Abe’s appointee as LDP policy chief, Shoichi Nakagawa, called for discussions on Japan obtaining a nuclear arsenal, and in June then Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma further angered A-bomb survivors by saying the atomic bombings “could not be helped.”
Motofumi Asai, head of Hiroshima City University’s Hiroshima Peace Institute, said such remarks would have been “unthinkable two or three decades ago . . . and should not go unchallenged.”
But efforts to strengthen the Japan-U.S. military alliance since the 1990s and the lack of strong public resistance to proposals to change the Constitution have made such politicians “think they can be forgiven for making these remarks,” he said.
While Abe’s key policies, such as pushing to rewrite the Constitution during his tenure and taking a hawkish stance on North Korea, did not come up specifically as campaign issues, those activists encouraged by the July 29 election result said they believe the public has rejected Abe as a whole.
“I came to realize there could be a tail wind if we can proclaim that the message from the election was a rejection of (Abe’s) excessive militarism and nationalism,” Peace Boat’s Kawasaki said.
Hiroshi Takakusaki, secretary general of the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, or Gensuikyo, said he believes the result underlines public discontent with the government’s “mere adherence to U.S. policies.”
Mitsuru Kurosawa, a professor of disarmament in Osaka University’s graduate school, said he sees similarities between the current situation in Japan and that in the United States after the midterm election last November.
The U.S. election resulted in the Democrats taking control of Congress and led to a review of the U.S. Iraq policy, while in Japan the opposition led by the Democratic Party of Japan has taken control of the Upper House from Abe’s LDP-led coalition.
Kurosawa said he thinks the election outcome will not necessarily persuade Abe to change political course. “We will have to stop the right-leaning trends of the Japanese government,” he said.
Some prominent peace proponents in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki don’t agree with the emerging optimism.
Former Nagasaki University President Hideo Tsuchiyama warned that the election defeat could drive Abe to focus on revising the Constitution rather than on trying to win back public support through other policies.
“In my view, Mr. Abe has opted to stay in power despite his stunning defeat to try to amend the Constitution with his own hands. The view that the momentum for a revision has been lost is too optimistic,” he said.
Citing a Japanese proverb, “A cornered mouse will bite the cat,” Tsuchiyama said he is worried Abe may pick strong advocates of changing the Constitution when he reshuffles the Cabinet.
Hiroshima Peace Institute’s Asai said that the DPJ, despite its plan to oppose the government’s bid to extend naval refueling support for the fighting in Afghanistan, may not necessarily be relied on to preserve the Constitution.
“In terms of the Constitution, the LDP’s defeat and the DPJ’s victory are not progress, and the risk persists,” he said.