As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares to ram through legislation that would drastically alter Japan’s security stance, both his Liberal Democratic Party and the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan are taking their arguments to the people — via a series of pamphlets, YouTube videos and Internet television explainers.
Experts, however, say these methods will likely have little effect on public opinion.
The unusual attempts to explain and debunk the controversial and complicated legislation are part of a quest by the ruling bloc and the opposition to reach a public that is unsure of the legislation and critical of politicians’ motivations.
One such attempt by the DPJ was met with fury — from within its own party.
On July 3, the DPJ released a pamphlet online and to its prefectural chapters, claiming that the security legislation could potentially see the return of a conscription-style military draft in Japan.
The pamphlet, titled “For the Children’s Future,” appeared aimed at mothers. In it, on a page titled “Future draft system? Mounting fears,” a statement claims that “it is logically undeniable that the (constitutional) interpretation could be changed to allow for a (military) draft by the administration at the time.”
Upon its release, some conservative DPJ lawmakers railed against the pamphlet, claiming that the conscription claims went too far, media reports said.
DPJ Secretary-General Yukio Edano, however, quickly swatted away any complaints at a Monday news conference.
“The contents (of the pamphlet) are good,” he told reporters, indicating he would not comply with the party members’ request.
The Abe administration has said a military conscription system would be considered equivalent to “involuntary servitude,” which is prohibited under the pacifist Constitution.
Analysts and experts also voiced concern over the pamphlet’s subject matter.
“The DPJ pamphlet is quite alarmist . . . yet they just submitted a counterproposal that doesn’t necessarily deny a CSD (collective self-defense) argument,” said James Schoff, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment, a global think tank. “So that doesn’t necessarily dismiss the root of their supposed fear that the bills could lead to a draft in Japan. I’m not sure the pamphlet rhetoric is now consistent with the party’s stance.”
Collective self-defense is the right of a country to use force against an armed attack on a foreign country, even if the former is not under direct attack.
The pamphlet is part of a bitter war of attrition being fought as the LDP-Komeito ruling bloc and a divided opposition seek their respective goals for the legislation.
The same day the DPJ released its pamphlet, the LDP also unveiled on its home page its own polished public relations maneuver — an animated YouTube video explaining its view of the need for the bills.
In “Oshiete! Hige no Taicho,” (Teach Us, Mustached Captain), LDP Upper House lawmaker Masahisa Sato, a former GSDF colonel and commander of the Japanese Iraq Reconstruction and Support Group, lends his voice to the anime’s lead character, a father figure who attempts to explain the intricacies of the bills to a young girl worried the bills could end up leaving Japan mired in conflict.
“There are a number of gaps in the current law, and in the event of a crisis, Japan can’t respond,” the character implores in the nearly five-minute video.
“From trouble in the Senkaku Islands to North Korean missile tests, we Japanese face a number of credible threats,” the character adds.
“In order to protect the safety of Japanese people, we’re working to fill these gaps,” he says.
The character also dismisses the possibility of a military draft being implemented as “completely inconceivable.”
The government’s PR push comes amid the double whammy of sagging support in the polls and an unexpectedly strong pushback on the legislation from the public and, to a lesser extent, from the opposition.
The ruling bloc and opposition “expected the bills to have a much faster (and) smoother ride in the Diet,” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.
Now the pushback, combined with a standoffish relationship with the media, has prompted the LDP to take its case directly to the people. On the other side of the issue, the main opposition DPJ is now working to capitalize on the backlash, also via a more direct approach with the public.
For the parties, this is a way to deliver an “unfiltered message to interested undecided citizens for whom the message might either motivate to oppose actively or reassure and perhaps give a . . . boost of support in the next round of polls, to create some positive momentum, depending on what side you’re on,” said the Carnegie Endowment’s Schoff.
“This is a similar strategy to releasing unusual (i.e. newsworthy) campaign ads in the U.S. on YouTube in the hopes of them being picked up and talked about by mainstream media,” he added. “The goal, of course, is cheap publicity.”
Still, Schoff questioned the ultimate payoff.
“I suspect that their impact is marginal,” he said. “Not zero, and worth a try, but they are not a substitute for more traditional means of debate and media coverage.”
Dujarric agreed that the approach isn’t likely to resonate with the public.
“Many voters aren’t really focused on this issue, he said. “They probably prefer watching good music videos.”
The rush to appeal to the public, especially younger demographics, comes on the heels of an LDP-crafted manga released in April that attempts to make the case for constitutional revision, as well as an animated video for children that was released by the Defense Ministry earlier this year. In that video, “Boemon no boe da mon: Yoku Wakaru Jietai” (Bo-Emon’s Defense Lecture: ABC of Self-Defense Forces), a Pokemon-inspired character discusses with children the duties and mission of the Self-Defense Forces.