Everyone had been wondering when the real Shinzo Abe would bare the dark recesses of his political soul. There had been some glimpses, but with Abenomics in a swoon amid growing skepticism about its sustainability, Japan’s prime minister finally ripped off his mask as he rammed secrecy legislation through the Diet, steamrollering an opposition in disarray.
It was a move reminiscent of his grandfather’s denouement in 1960. Back then, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi frog-marched the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty through the Diet in what turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, because he was forced to step down due to massive street demonstrations and overwhelming public criticism.
I dub the last national legislative session of 2013 the “Terror Diet,” because Shigeru Ishiba, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s secretary-general, alarmed the nation by likening anti-secrecy-law demonstrators to terrorists — so expressing an unsettling disdain for democracy and constitutional rights.
Ishiba followed that up by threatening journalists if their reporting jeopardized anything related to the sprawling concept of national security.
Fears about where the secrecy law is taking the nation have spread because scary people like Ishiba are running the show. His gaffes were spectacularly inept, indelibly discrediting the secrecy law while fueling a powerful public backlash.
Abe’s Terror Diet went full blast on enacting conservatives’ longstanding security agenda. So the third arrow of Abenomics — structural reforms — remains a withered toothpick.
The state secrets law promotes a cocoon of impunity for government officials, a sure recipe for poor governance. Nonetheless, Abe lamely tried to defend the law at a Dec. 9 press conference, asserting that the new powers it grants bureaucrats to unilaterally designate documents “special secrets” — without any oversight mechanism — would not affect citizens’ daily lives. The problem is that the law grants sweeping discretionary power to bureaucrats who prefer to operate in secrecy without the annoyance of the media or any public scrutiny.
Rikki Kersten, a professor of Japanese politics at the Australian National University, asserts that “Abe has returned Japan to 1945 and negates the past 60 years of demonstrating that Japan is a responsible democracy contributing to regional peace and prosperity.”
She said that several Japanese people have told her they want to leave Japan because they don’t want to raise their children in this atmosphere of saber-rattling and repression. She waggishly suggested that Abe’s theme song must be “My Way.”
Alas, Abe-rule unleashes the bureaucrats and allows them to act with impunity. Banri Kaeda, hapless leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, pointedly suggested that the secrets law is “of the bureaucrats, for the bureaucrats and by the bureaucrats.”
Indeed, the cascade of scandals involving officials over the past two decades demonstrates the need for greater transparency and accountability — not far, far less.
Aside from numerous tales of embezzlement and misuse of taxpayer money, bureaucrats actually condoned distribution of HIV-tainted blood products to Japan’s hemophiliacs, causing an epidemic among them. Why? Because Big Pharma has pull and profits matter more than citizens.
Do we want a muzzled media unable to expose the collusive relations between government officials and Tokyo Electric Power Co. that compromised safety at its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant?
Three investigations into the three reactor meltdowns there following the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami helped people understand that it was negligence and human error that caused Japan’s Chernobyl, and now we know that bureaucrats’ fingerprints are all over that catastrophe.
Don’t we also have the right to know that Foreign Ministry officials actually betrayed their government by coaching the United States on how to counter then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s plan to relocate the U.S. Marines’ Futenma Air Base outside Okinawa — thereby undercutting the elected government?
The people’s right to know is vital in exposing bureaucrats’ betrayals of the public trust. The current freedom-of-information law is inadequate, but has pulled back the curtain just enough to underscore the dangers of not knowing what officials are up to. Soon they will be able to sweep their transgressions under the “special secrets” tatami mat.
The public backlash to passage of the new secrets law has been surprisingly strong, as a majority of citizens are opposed to it. Abe’s popularity has imploded, dropping by 10 percentage points in one month and slipping below 50 percent for the first time since he took office in December last year. Clearly, the real Abe scares Japanese citizens.
David Slater, Director of the Institute for Comparative Cultures at Sophia University in Tokyo, has noted that “the demonstrations in Tokyo have been recharged with bigger than normal, angrier than normal and much more focused on the larger issues of state control — the word ‘fascist’ was often heard — of which the push against nuclear power is one part.”
He continued, “Recent actions by the Abe government have provided a sort of ‘object lesson,’ a clear and concrete illustration of how seemingly disparate state practices (militarism and domestic surveillance, protection of capital companies vs. the welfare of the citizens — displaced and otherwise, due process and representation) and various activist goals are linked in ways that so far most of the left has not been able to articulate so well itself.”
The Buffoon Award for wacko blog of 2013 surely goes to the LDP’s Ishiba who, on Nov. 29, blasted demonstrators, writing, “It seems to me that the tactic of simply shouting at the top of their lungs is not much different from an act of terrorism, in essence.”
Slater notes, “He was forced to retract the identification of ‘demonstrators = terrorists,’ but his distaste for the protesters remained clearly evident even in his retraction. Domestically, it has sent a chill down the backs of many.”
According to Slater, the anti-Abe rallies are “rocking, and by a whole much wider spectrum of folks in terms of generation, geography and also occupation. The young people are back from the summer ‘dance demos’ and ‘Twitter demos,’ and that is the key! Without a substantial number of younger people, there cannot be the same critical mass.”
But it seems unlikely the public will prevail. Given Ishiba’s repugnant comments, it’s hard to imagine that the ruling conservative elite will be swayed by defiant citizens. The LDP is pumped that it has achieved its longstanding agenda, and is not about to make concessions now — because it doesn’t have to.
Kersten says that Abe will throw fuel on the fires of public discontent by securing a reinterpretation of the so-called “war-renouncing” Article 9 of the Constitution to allow for collective self-defense — “but the real story is not about strengthening the U.S. alliance,” she says. “Abe has contradictory goals: Shoring up the alliance but also gaining greater autonomy and not being beholden to the U.S.
“He seeks to boost Japan’s military capabilities in line with the needs of collective self-defense, but not mainly for that purpose. The defense community here is eager to create a Japanese version of the U.S. Marines to replace them as they pull out.”
China, she adds, has helped Abe achieve his security agenda by acting like a regional threat. Seizing the window of opportunity created by rising regional tensions, Abe also plans to shrug off decades of restraint and lift the arms export ban. Certainly, Abe is transforming Japan, but not in ways that Japanese support or believe they benefit from. Hence, the thuggish Ishiba is haranguing us “terrorists” to get with the program.
Jeff Kingston is the Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.