“What,” demanded a protesting student at the height of the summer of protests just past, “is to become of democracy?”
No question better sums up a year ending, as it began, with terrorist massacres. Can democracy survive unbridled terror?
It faces other challenges as well, most conspicuously that of being taken for granted. Wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously called democracy “the worst form of government,” thinking no doubt of the vacuity and inefficiency to which it is prone — “except,” Churchill added, “for all the others.” Generations with no experience of “all the others” may well forget to count their blessings.
It’s happening now, Shukan Post magazine fears — in Japan and throughout the democratic world. A qualification is called for. Generals are not seizing power, jackboots do not thud in the streets. Elections proceed, orderly and fairly for the most part. Actually the word the magazine uses to describe the force increasingly gaining ascendency is not “undemocratic” or “totalitarian” or “fascist” or “authoritarian” but “ultra-rightist.” Is an elected ultra-right regime democratic? We may soon find ourselves better informed on that subject.
So far it’s more a looming threat than a present danger. Of the eight ultra-rightists in Shukan Post’s portrait gallery, only two — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — currently hold power. The two household names among the remaining six are front-running Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, president of France’s National Front.
Trump and Le Pen have at least two points in common — a vigorous anti-immigration agenda and a chance of being elected president in 2017. Even without things going that far, the rising popularity of the ultra-right worldwide is an observable fact scarcely open to dispute. The dispute is over whether that’s good for us or bad and, if bad, how bad.
Inseparable from ultra-right-wing democracy is the sort of populism that recklessly stokes fears and prejudices in the interest of electoral success.
Shukan Post quotes historian Masanori Tsujita as deploring the consequent oversimplification of political discourse. Trump, his representative example, “divides the world into his own side on which stands justice, and his opponents’ side, where evil reigns.” We live in complex times, Tsujita continues — “the economy globalizes, races fuse, good and evil are no longer clear, and people are uneasy.”
Simplicity is balm, even if illusory — fed, ironically, by that most bewilderingly complex of technologies, the Internet, where partisans of this or that oversimplification can reach out to each other for support and encouragement.
No one understands this better than the Islamic State group, whose reign of terror over large swaths of Iraq and Syria has spread far beyond local borders. France, attacked in January and on high alert since, nonetheless proved vulnerable again in November. The U.S., fortified behind rigorous security measures since September 2001, lost 14 to a terrorist attack in California on Dec. 2. If, as former U.S. President George Bush liked to say, radical Islamists “hate our freedom,” they may have discovered the best way to undermine it. The global rightward shift suggests as much.
The monthly Sapio, analyzing developments from a Japanese viewpoint, notes the risk of terrorist assaults on shinkansens, tourist venues and Buddhist temples, Buddhism being “idolatry” to the Islamic State group. Nuclear power plants are not mentioned but inevitably spring to mind. An essay by former Foreign Ministry analyst Masaru Sato includes this chilling insight: “Preventing all action by terrorists who have no thought of retreat and are quite willing to die is well-nigh impossible.” It’s been proven again and again in the course of the West’s “war on terror.” “There are in every country,” Sato observes ominously, “young people who sympathize with the Islamic State group.”
Against such a pervasive, invisible and intractable menace, a fearful citizenry might well throw its support behind a strong government, tolerating its potential excesses in return for real or imagined security. Could that be one reason for Abe’s swift recovery from the battering he took during the summer demonstrations?
They were the largest bouts of popular activism Japan had seen in decades. Were the masses awakening? A sinister state secrets law that went into effect in December 2014 was the first impetus. A second followed in summer — the brusque passage, over vigorous opposition, of security legislation permitting what the “pacifist” Constitution had long been interpreted as banning, namely a broader global military role than Japan has undertaken since its last attempt at global reach culminated in the Pacific War.
Spearheading the protests was a group called Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs). Its most visible leader was a 23-year-old political science major named Aki Okuda. “What is to become of democracy?” he demanded. The demonstrations he did so much to inspire are his answer — it either takes to the streets or it withers. “No one,” he said, “can stop people who have begun to think and take action as individuals.”
He’s wrong there. “Beginning to think” is just the beginning. A movement that ends with its beginning is just noise. In October, SEALDs announced its pending disbandment. Meanwhile, Abe’s approval ratings are edging upward again after their summertime plunge.
How strong should a government be, and how much government strength is consistent with democracy? A theme running through Sapio’s package of articles is the blurring of the old left-right dichotomy. No “rightist,” in Shukan Post’s sense of the word, rejects electoral democracy. Arguably they game the system — as Putin’s 80 percent approval ratings or Japan’s 60 years of nearly unbroken one-party rule suggest — but they do not overthrow it. And the Japan Communist Party, its name and history notwithstanding, has long since eschewed revolution as a legitimate road to power.
A more intriguing anomaly is noted in Sapio by journalist Satetsu Takeda. Japanese ultra-rightists, until very recently, were staunchly imperialist, at least to the extent of proclaiming and advocating readiness to die for an emperor they held to be divine. The liberal views of the current occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne has muddied those clear if sinister waters.
Emperor Akihito’s expression of “deep remorse” over the war on the 70th anniversary of its end is in stark contrast to Abe’s squeamishness on the subject; the Emperor’s “earnest desire for the continuation of peace” seems a thinly veiled criticism of the direction Japan is taking under Abe’s leadership. Thus the new configuration Takeda points to: a government symbolizing the ascendency of the ultra-right, an Emperor symbolizing the hope that the ultra-right will not prevail.
Michael Hoffman’s new book is “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”