The Abe administration will press ahead with divisive plans to loosen restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday, a day after a lone demonstrator set himself on fire in protest outside a busy Tokyo railway station.
Hundreds of people outside Shinjuku Station witnessed the man with a bullhorn on Sunday afternoon yelling opposition to the changes for about an hour while perched on a girder above a footbridge. He then poured flammable liquid on himself and lit it.
The dramatic conflagration — an uncommon act in Japan — was widely discussed on social media in both English and Japanese, with onlookers posting numerous videos and photographs.
Many Internet users made the connection between the self-immolation and a groundswell of opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to relax constitutional rules preventing the SDF from going into battle.
However, the issue received scant coverage in the mainstream media, with none of the national newspapers using a picture in their short reports.
National broadcaster NHK, whose chairman caused outrage earlier this year by suggesting that the state-funded body should not contradict the prime minister, did not cover the self-immolation on the day.
At least two private broadcasters did, using footage that had been posted on YouTube.
Suga on Monday refused to comment on the suicide attempt, which he said was a police matter, but confirmed that the Cabinet would push ahead Tuesday with plans to change the interpretation of part of the pacifist Constitution.
Critics say such a move would not only devalue the Constitution, it would take place without sufficient public consultation.
Under the current reading, Japan’s large and well-trained military is barred from using force except in narrowly defined circumstances in which the country is under attack.
“We are in the final stage of the coordination between the ruling parties,” Suga told reporters. “Once the consensus is made between the ruling parties, we will have it approved by the Cabinet tomorrow (Tuesday).”
The plans by Abe to increase his country’s military options are supported by the United States, Japan’s chief ally, but are highly controversial at home, where voters are deeply wedded to the pacifism the nation adopted after World War II.
The latest polls show at least half of respondents are against a more aggressive military stance.
The liberal Mainichi Shimbun said over the weekend that 58 percent of voters are opposed, while 80 percent feel the government has more explaining to do. In its poll published Monday, the Nikkei business newspaper said 50 percent of respondents are against the change.
But Suga defended the plan, saying: “The government should protect people’s lives and property as well as the country’s safety . . . and if there is a defect in the current legal framework, we will address it.”
Suga said the administration was “aware of the incident” on Sunday but was “not in a position to comment on an individual case.”
Tokyo police said Monday that nothing was known of the man’s condition nearly 24 hours after he was taken to a hospital with severe burns.
Popular protest in Japan has tended over recent decades to be muted, and protest suicides are very rare, with only a handful taking place in living memory.
In 1970, right-wing novelist Yukio Mishima disemboweled himself after a failed attempted coup, in protest against what he saw as an excessively passive state.
In 1967, a 73-year-old man set himself alight in front of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence over support for U.S. bombing in North Vietnam.