The Abe administration defied public criticism and resistance from the opposition camp and had the state secrets bill enacted in early December. It can hardly be said that the contentious legislation was adequately deliberated in the Diet. Flip-flops in government explanations underlined the shaky nature of the law. The Abe administration and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party justify their action on the grounds that majority rule in the legislature is the essence of democracy.
True, democracy is a mechanism that transforms the will of a majority into the will of the whole. But treating the will of a majority as the will of the whole is a fiction. Historically the majority has been aware of this and made efforts to accommodate the public opinion or the will of minorities to a certain extent in order to maintain the legitimacy of the majority’s power.
Institutions wearing the cloak of a neutral and public character and placed at a certain distance from the majority have existed either within the governing organization or in the middle ground between the government power and the civil society to play a role in the policymaking process. Such a mechanism has been indispensable to ensure a stable rule.
In postwar Japan, institutions such as courts, the Bank of Japan, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, the public broadcaster and intellectual hubs like universities functioned on the premise that they keep a distance from partisan influence. Furthermore, even the Imperial system in postwar Japan played the role of a nonpartisan institution and contributed to social stability.
One of the key characteristics of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is its attempt to paint these autonomous or neutral institutions with a partisan hue. The BOJ has been turned into a tool to implement his “Abenomics” and its governor hand-picked by Abe has pursued a monetary easing “of a different dimension.” Abe has replaced the director general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau with a former Foreign Ministry bureaucrat who advocates lifting the self-imposed ban on Japan exercising the right to collective self-defense.
Recent new appointees to NHK’s Board of Governors include a writer and a scholar with close ties to Abe. It is expected that this move will lead the broadcaster to make its already-affirmative report of the government even laudatory.
The Abe administration had the Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko appear at a ceremony on April 28 to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the U.S.-led Occupation with the San Francisco Peace Treaty going into effect on April 28, 1952. This event was used by Abe as an occasion to raise the fervor for his idea of bringing an end to the nation’s postwar regime.
He also mobilized a member of the Imperial Family in Japan’s attempt to have the International Olympic Committee let Tokyo host the 2020 Olympic Games.
The state secrets law will likely be used as a tool to intimidate the media and cripple their due role as a watchdog over government activities. Independence of the judiciary is a key principle of the Constitution. But when the Supreme Court ruled that the malapportionment in Lower House elections was “in a state of unconstitutionality,” some LDP ranks, instead of humbly accepting the ruling, reacted by saying that the top court was going too far.
The autonomy of universities is now a thing of the past and those institutions are giving up their freedom of academic research and education to become tools of an economic growth strategy under the guidance of the education ministry.
It is an inevitable consequence of democracy that a political force that has won majority seats in an election monopolizes the administrative power and controls legislative activities in the legislature. Still, there were areas that government leaders in postwar Japan before Abe refrained from completely bringing under their partisan influence. But Abe has discarded self-restraint and painted these areas with his own hue. This is the reason that I call the emergence of the Abe administration the biggest crisis in Japan’s postwar democracy.
Meanwhile the opposition parties, which are supposed to check the unrestrained behavior of the Abe administration, continue to be ineffectual and powerless.
In the process of the deliberation on the state secrets law, conservative opposition parties Your Party and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) agreed to cooperate with the LDP in return for minor amendments to the legislation.
Jealous of such moves by the two parties, LDP’s junior ally New Komeito proceeded to step closer to the LDP, discarding its election promise to serve as a force within the ruling coalition to put a brake on the LDP’s turn to the right.
The party did little to check the LDP’s dominance in the process of the law’s enactment. Thus a gigantic ruling regime similar to the wartime regime with across-the-board support for the military (yokusan taisei) is emerging.
The state secrets law marks the first step in Abe’s plan to bring an end to Japan’s postwar regime. He will likely put on his agenda the exercise of the right to collective self-defense and revision of the Constitution. Given the current state of the opposition camp, Japan’s postwar democracy is facing a serious crisis.
Still, large-scale civic movements to oppose the state secrets law picked up steam just before its enactment and many media organizations made clear their criticism of the Abe administration. Newspaper opinion polls taken after the law was approved showed that approval ratings of Abe’s Cabinet fell by roughly 10 percentage points.
This illustrates how a large portion of Japanese voters become wary or critical of the Abe administration when it takes up issues other than the economy — such as his ideological agenda and an attempt to revise the Constitution.
In order to become a true counterbalancing force against the ruling coalition, the opposition forces need to accommodate citizens’ potential power to confront the government.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hokkaido University in Sapporo.