Japan heading for darker days

by Takamitsu Sawa

After the governing coalition rammed through the Diet a state secrets bill on Dec. 6, public opinion polls taken by various news media showed a sharp decline in approval ratings for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The ratings, which had remained high at around 70 percent, plummeted by around 10 percentage points to between around 55 percent and less than 50 percent, while the ratio of those who disapproved of the administration rose by 10 to 15 percentage points.

Authors, movie producers, scholars, lawyers and others who attach importance to freedom of expression formed associations to oppose the bill, demanded more time in the Diet deliberations on the bill and even called on the Diet to block the passage of the bill. But Abe turned a deaf ear to their voices.

Various opinion surveys showed that the bill was opposed by about 80 percent of the respondents, and on the day the Upper House voted on it, thousands of demonstrators opposing the bill converged around the Diet building. To the best of my knowledge, such a large-scale demonstration was the first since students, workers and others had demonstrated to the Diet building in 1960 expressing their opposition to the continuation of the security treaty setup with the United States.

I still do not understand why the Abe administration was in such a hurry to have the secrecy bill passed. Abe and his principal ministers like Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga seldom appeared before special Diet committees deliberating on the bill and the government was often represented only by Masako Mori, state minister responsible for measures to cope with the declining birthrate, who had been made in charge of the secrecy bill. This was a very unusual scene for deliberations of such an important piece of legislation, and gave me the impression that Abe was bent on forcing a vote on the bill at all costs.

On Dec. 26, only a few weeks after the passage of the bill, Abe put into action his long-cherished wish of visiting Yasukuni Shrine. On the previous day, he met with Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and asked him to approve the government’s plan to reclaim land in Henoko Bay of Okinawa Island to build a new facility to replace the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma located in an urban area of Ginowan in the same island. In exchange for that, Abe promised to Nakaima that the government would allocate ¥350.1 billion out of the fiscal 2014 budget for the development of Okinawa and over ¥300 billion for the same purpose in each of the subsequent fiscal years through fiscal 2021.

This made it all but certain that the way would be cleared by Dec. 27 for the plan to relocate the American military installation from Futenma to Henoko, putting an end to a thorny issue simmering between Japan and the U.S. for decades.

Abe’s visit to Yasukuni was based on his self-confidence in securing the strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance thanks to near certainty about the resolution of the Futenma problem. No doubt Abe visited Yasukuni believing firmly that the U.S. would tolerate his visit.

Needless to say Abe had anticipated reactions from China and South Korea to his Yasukuni visit. But contrary to his expectations, the U.S. government expressed disappointment, the Russian government voiced regrets and the European Union called for cautious diplomacy concerning Abe’s Yasukuni visit. It looked as though Japan was placed in the midst of a global net of encirclement that was formed overnight.

There are indications that Abe’s inner circle carefully but in a clandestine manner chose the timing of his Yasukuni visit but reactions from the U.S., Russia and the European Union must have been beyond their expectations.

My guess as to the political intent behind Abe’s Yasukuni visit is that his primary aim was to further raise tensions in the Japan-China relationship. Bilateral tensions were triggered when Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands on Sept. 11, 2012. Psychological warfare between the two countries is still continuing over the islands. Especially noteworthy was the designation by the Chinese government of its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on Nov. 23. It appeared as though the mounting tensions between the two countries might escalate from a political to a military arena.

Abe’s scenario must have been like this: Heightening Sino-Japanese tensions with his visit to Yasukuni would clear the way for him to follow such steps as approving the exercise of the right to collective self-defense under the existing war-renouncing Constitution and abolishing the three-point weapons-export ban. He would then wait for a right opportunity and move aggressively to amend the Constitution.

This scenario, of course, was predicated on assurances given by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other high-ranking U.S. officials that the Japan-U.S. security treaty would be applicable to the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands. But this makes Washington all the more anxious to prevent the dispute over the islands from flaring up to a military confrontation.

Early last October, Hagel and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Japan, South Korea and China. In Tokyo, they visited and laid flowers at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery. Their tour of the three countries and visit to the cemetery should have been interpreted as signaling their hope that Japan would find diplomatic solutions for the territorial disputes with South Korea and China and that, to that end, Abe would refrain from visiting Yasukuni. The U.S. government was “disappointed” as Abe did not take heed of these signals and went ahead with visiting the shrine.

Draft constitutional amendments released by the Liberal Democratic Party on April 27, 2012, contain both certain provisions that had been expected by the public as likely coming from the conservative party and others that had not. The former includes measures to make the Emperor the official head of state, to create a national defense force, to approve the exercise of the right to collective self-defense, to designate the Hinomaru as the nation flag, and to make “Kimigayo” the national anthem. These are something the public had expected.

But the latter category includes the following: a clause that says that while basic human rights must not be violated, they must not interfere with public interest and public order; the present constitutional wording of “all of the people shall be respected as individuals” will be changed to read “… respected as humans”; while the freedom of speech is guaranteed, people will not be allowed to perform expressions for the purpose of interfering with public interest and public order.

As a man with deep respect for modern Western European principles of liberalism, democracy and individualism, I feel threatened by the draft’s provision that the exercise of basic human rights and freedom of speech may be restricted for the sake of public interest and public order. I am not comfortable either with the replacement of “individuals” with “humans” because this seems to reflect concerns among right-wing elements of the LDP about spread of individualism.

American and European countries, which place the highest value on liberalism and democracy, would undoubtedly view the LDP draft constitutional amendments as too reactionary.

I am at a total loss to understand why the present administration walks the path toward de-modernization and isolation with such eagerness.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University.