Amid increasing public concern, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing forward to lift Japan’s self-imposed ban on collective self-defense through a reinterpretation of the Constitution by the government itself.
Kazutoshi Hando, a prominent 84-year-old expert on the Showa Era (1926-1989), warned in an interview that the current situation in Japan is similar to just before it entered World War II.
Hando points out that Abe has devised a set of “three arrows” to transform the country: a revision in Article 96 of the Constitution to ease requirements for constitutional amendments; a designated secrets protection law; and a reinterpretation of the Constitution.
Public skepticism has prevented Abe from shooting the first arrow, the Article 96 revision, while the second arrow, the confidentiality law, passed after stormy Diet debates in December.
The law “allows the government to hold a grip on free speech,” Hando said. And the third arrow, the reinterpretation of the supreme code, will “completely nullify Article 9 of the Constitution,” which bans Japan from engaging in war, he warned.
“In the (early) Showa Era, when Japan was on a path toward militarism, authorities suppressed the media first with a so-called military intelligence protection act, leaving the public feeling unable to speak freely,” Hando said. “I realize that he (Abe) is imitating the Showa Era, learning from the period.”
“The Abe government knows it doesn’t need to crack down on the media now,” he said. “To threaten to apply the secrets protection law or to charge a reporter with inappropriate coverage under the law would be enough to restrain the media, as it did in the Showa Era. That’s what the authorities want.”
New Komeito, the junior coalition partner of Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party, now seems to be the last bastion against his drive to allow Japan to use the right to collective self-defense.
“If Komeito succumbs to the LDP and accepts the reinterpretation, Abe will then seek to make a law to transform the Self-Defense Forces into national military forces (with loosened restrictions),” Hando emphasized. “That would be a point of no return. Japan would become a ‘normal’ country that is prepared for war.”
After he was re-elected as prime minister for a second time in December 2012, Abe initially focused on the economy, naming bold monetary easing, flexible fiscal spending and structural reforms the “three arrows” of his “Abenomics” policy mix to fight deflation.
While he enjoyed high approval ratings on the back of stock price rises and an economic recovery, his nationalist agenda was gradually rearing its head. “We may have been too naive,” Hando said.
Hando has written that there was a warlike mood among ordinary Japanese ahead of Japan’s entry into the war. He denies that the same public sentiment permeates Japan today.
Still, he believes that those who back Abe feel intimidated by other countries and that anti-foreigner sentiment is on the rise.
“The motivation for building a modern Japan (some 150 years ago) was the idea of ‘sonno-joi’ (or respect for the Emperor and rejection of foreigners),” Hando points out. But the “joi” anti-foreigner philosophy was later replaced by the need to strengthen the country by opening it up to modern ideas and developments.
“Yet, has the joi philosophy disappeared from the Japanese mind? The answer is ‘No,’ ” Hando said. “Whenever Japan comes under external pressure, the joi philosophy sprouts out,” he noted.
Hando said that it is such joi-minded people who are now backing Abe.
“In any age, there are always some people who assume that the government is right and that those who oppose it are unpatriotic,” he said. “In the Showa Era, people often argued with each other, rather than complaining about the military police and the authorities.”
“At Bungeishunju, a magazine that I have worked for, staff there became fanatics around 1940, with employees critical of the government transferred to Manchuria (currently northeastern China),” Hando said. “Some people even chanted Shinto prayers at work after purifying their bodies with water.”
What was observed in the prewar era that is not prevalent in today’s Japan is the spread of terrorism, he observed. “But given the rise of rightist movements in cyberspace, as well as hate speech, which can be deemed a terror against free speech, acts of terrorism may have already begun to spread.”
Hando underscored the importance of Japan never waging war again. “As Japan is a long country with a mountainous spine, most of its people live on the coast. To protect the country, of which the total coastline is longer than that of the United States, needs a huge number of soldiers.”
“Furthermore, there are more than 50 nuclear reactors on the country’s coasts, and a single missile attack on a reactor would be enough to make the surrounding areas uninhabitable,” he warned. “Because Japan is difficult to defend in terms of geopolitics, we should seriously consider ways to prevent war.”
Hando is now concerned that there are fewer and fewer elites in the country who remember the last war and know how tragic it was.
“Many Japanese leaders in the early Showa Era, including politicians, servicemen and bureaucrats, did not know the tragedies of the (1904-05) Russo-Japanese War but only inherited the glory of Japan’s victory in the war.”
“Current Japanese leaders are similar. They do not know the tragedies of World War II and are trying to regain Japan’s past glories,” Hando said. “Under such circumstances, a country devours the way in pursuit of huge economic and military power,” he warned.
But at the same time, Hando highly rates the people’s efforts to remain a peaceful country over the past 70 years. International trust won through tireless effort is Japan’s “greatest national interest,” he said.
“I feel no need to abandon this national interest by using a right to join the battles of others, or collective self-defense, and becoming a cat’s paw of the United States.”