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Shinjuku self-immolation act protests Abe’s democracy hijack

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Last week a man set himself on fire next to Shinjuku Station to reportedly protest Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bid to lift constitutional constraints on Japan’s military forces. It was a gruesome spectacle captured on numerous smartphone videos and disseminated on social media. Good thing because the mainstream media practically ignored the most extraordinary act of political protest in the quarter century that I have lived in Japan. NHK news didn’t even mention the event, apparently playing by Pyongyang rules: Ignore the ugly truths that discredit the powers that be.

Self-immolation is a weapon of the weak, an assertion of moral authority in the face of authoritarian power, a last-resort demonstration of defiance normally confined to despotic states. Like in Tibet, where more than 130 people have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Chinese repression, cultural chauvinism and economic exploitation. Or like in Tunisia at the end of 2010, where a street vendor’s fiery protest sparked a national revolution against tyranny that inspired the Arab Spring. But a Japan Spring seems unlikely even as protests mount against Abe’s ideological agenda and moves to circumvent democracy through the special secrets law, the evisceration of Article 9 and restarting nuclear reactors in defiance of majority opinion.

Abe’s move to bulldoze through a reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution to allow for collective self-defense is opposed by most Japanese. But he is getting his way by making a mockery of Japanese democracy in bypassing established procedures for amending the Constitution. Abe is like a thief in the night sneaking in the back door to steal the heart and soul of Japan’s pacifist Constitution, and this is what angers people. The absence of any substantive public consultation and the failure to pursue revision through the front door by securing Diet approval and holding a public referendum — procedures laid out in the Constitution — raises serious questions about Abe’s commitment to democratic principles and the sugarcoated militarism he touts as “proactive pacifism.”

This artful reinterpretation is a game changer and everyone knows it, because now Japan can wage war. Abe is frog-marching the nation down what everyone understands is a slippery slope. What may start as a limited action to protect allies can easily escalate out of control while the fog of war obscures the exit sign.

The various scenarios that the Liberal Democratic Party trotted out to convince New Komeito, its coalition partner, to abandon its core principle of pacifism provide useful political cover, but are unconvincing in the court of public opinion. Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist organization that mobilizes millions of votes for the coalition, warned New Komeito, its political offshoot, not to endorse reinterpretation, sensibly advising Abe to pursue revision through proper constitutional means rather than devious ploys. But New Komeito signed off on this dubious dodging of democratic process, apparently unwilling to relinquish the whiff of power even if it entails shirking its principles. But the once formidable Socialist Party (now the tiny Social Democratic Party) knows all too well the cost of abandoning core principles for the vagaries of political power. In a bizarre coalition including the LDP, the Socialist leader Tomiichi Murayama became prime minister (1994-96), but the price of power was renouncing the party’s long-standing view that the security pact with the United States was unconstitutional. The price of this apostasy was the implosion of the Socialist Party, as members voted with their feet and left the party in droves.

New Komeito’s leaders are hoping that they can convince members that their apostasy is really a pragmatic adjustment that actually imposes limits on Japan’s use of force. Good luck with that. Chances are that the religious basis of Soka Gakkai will insulate New Komeito from an exodus, but time will tell. Members I spoke with feel betrayed and resent the party’s flip-flop on pacifism, and a backlash is certainly possible.

The bottom line is that the Japanese public thinks that Abe is more of a threat to Japan than China or North Korea. Advocates justify reinterpreting the Constitution because Japan lives in a dangerous neighborhood, with China militarizing its territorial disputes and Pyongyang punctuating bellicose rhetoric by launching missiles. But even as the Japanese public understands these threats it appears that by a vast margin it fears Abe even more and doesn’t want to hand him a blank check on security.

Essentially, the public doesn’t trust Abe to prudently exercise the right to collective self-defense and is worried that he or some successor will somehow drag the nation into war somewhere, sometime at Washington’s behest. Once the principle is adopted, all of those reassuring scenarios the LDP has conjured up over the past month suggesting that some shackles remain on Japan waging war will fade into oblivion. Team Abe’s political theater over reinterpreting the constitution has not managed to convince anyone who was not already convinced of the wisdom of doing so. Sophistry aside, Abe wants to unleash the nation’s formidable military forces, and this is what the public opposes.

Japanese pacifism and Article 9 are touchstones of national identity that reflect the prevailing norms and values that Abe is trampling. Students learn about the horrors of war in their textbooks, focusing mainly on the dreadful wartime suffering of the Japanese population. Many also visit Hiroshima and Okinawa on school trips, where they encounter graphic antiwar messages that bolster support for Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution.

Last year the box office hit about kamikaze, “Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero),” delivered a powerful antiwar message, as the protagonist tried to subvert the war effort and what he dismissed as an inhumane waste of young men’s lives on suicide missions that would have no bearing on the outcome of a war already lost. The hard-core militarists in the film are portrayed as raving sociopaths.

Abe is said to have liked the film, but did he get it?

July 1, 2014, will go down in history as a watershed in Japan’s postwar history, the day of infamy when Abe hijacked democracy by renouncing Article 9 and the nation’s pacifist postwar order in an unscrupulous manner, achieving by fiat what he didn’t dare try through established constitutional procedures. Apparently he fears the people as much as they fear him.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • Starviking

    Abe is seen as a bigger threat than China or North Korea? Perhaps in your circle of friends.

  • Demosthenes

    I can understand the anger many feel over the change to Article 9. But I think the real problem isn’t whether Japan can start a war – let’s face it, they’d get flattened in a war with China – it’s whether Japan can actually afford an arms race in the midst of these economic woes. The way I see it, China has so much lazy cash lying around they could bankrupt Japan by continuing to spend on military. Japan can only print so much yen to try to match them. And when Japan’s economy goes belly up thanks to Abenomics (and I mean ‘when’ and not ‘if’), there’s going to be a heck of a lot of JSDF machinery rusting in those waters.

    • Vorteksio3 .

      ”let’s face it, they’d get flattened in a war with China”

      Not when the US come to their aid. Any hostile action taken by China will met with decivise response of the western world.

      • Demosthenes

        I was talking from the point of Japan initiating a war with China. I hardly think the world would follow Japan into a war with the CCP. Especially considering Russia, North Korea and perhaps even South Korea and Taiwan would be potential allies of China in such a situation.

    • Perry Constantine

      This is the problem. Abe has no concept of what war really is. Like all chickenhawks, he thinks all he has to do is play the role of a cowboy and everyone will bow down before him. Doesn’t work that way.

    • itoshima2012

      historically it was always China that got flattened, guess that would be the same now. China is a paper-tiger, always close to implosion, an environmental horror, slave labour rampant, everybody extremely unhappy….. or so tell me my Chinese friends from Shanghai. China basically hasn’t won a war in the last 100 years! they even got a bloody nose against Vietnam lol

      • Demosthenes

        Your “guess” that it would be the same now might be a bit foolish. China has nukes and a much stronger army . I sure wouldn’t like to try to bait that ‘paper tiger.’

  • Roan Suda

    Hillary Clinton, a graduate of Yale Law School and a one-time practicing lawyer, albeit of dubious reputation, has recently claimed that a majority of US Supreme Court justices of the United States may be reasonably compared with advocates of Sharia. The same sort of hysteria mixed with pomposity is seen in Jeff Kingston’s latest outburst, suggesting that NHK plays by “Pyongyang rules” that Prime Minister Abe is a sneaky neo-militarist. Such is, alas, becoming all too typical of Japan Times fare. It was bad enough when we had to put up with crackpots like Gregory Clark. Now it’s a regular triumvirate, with Clark joined by Arudou and Kingston…Despite the differences in their loony Weltanschauungen, what they have in common is systematic Japan-bashing, Japan being a generous feeder whose hand is oh so very easy to bite…One minor point regarding language in Kingston’s article: The Temple University scholar might wish to rethink his “thief in the night” simile. You see, it comes from the New Testament, with Jesus saying that He too will return in similarly unexpected fashion. Tsk, tsk, Sensei…

    • zer0_0zor0

      You just don’t agree with their politics, so why not be honest about that fact?

      Your accusation of “Japan bashing” when more than half of the Japanese people in the country of Japan disagree with the ultranationalist cronies of the CIA in the LDP and all of their diversionary recourse to bellicosity is groundless, to say the least.

      • Roan Suda

        All right. I’ll be honest…There are indeed different political perspectives, just as there are different ideas about astronomy. Some people believe that the moon’s crust consists largely of anorthosite and gabbro (or norite); others believe it is made of green cheese, having been nefariously poisoned by the CIA, the ultranationalist zaibatsu, the Jews, and the bicycle riders of Antwerp. I suppose all I’m calling for is a bit more, uh, diversity, with a little less of the latter view. Might the Japan publish, for example a cartoon that does not crudely and childishly ridicule Prime Minister Abe? Let a thousand flowers bloom!

      • VerityHeld

        Why shouldn’t the Japan Times crudely and childishly ridicule Prime Minister Abe? His conduct and his policies deserve no other consideration. Corporate tax cuts, reinterpreting Article 9–Abe earns every crude and childish characterization with every breath he takes!

    • itoshima2012

      Suda-san, very well said!

  • Ken5745

    No matter how Abe tries to slice the enchilada, Article 9 is crystal clear :

    “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

    If “July 1, 2014, will go down in history as a watershed in Japan’s postwar history, the day of infamy when Abe hijacked democracy by renouncing Article 9″ why is that no one has started the Impeachment process, as Abe is obliged to defend the Japanese Constitution and not trash it? Is someone sleeping at the wheel?

    • zer0_0zor0

      Agreed.
      There wouldn’t be such an uproar over “collective defense” is there was a perceived need among the public for such a declaration. That is plainly not the case, and the reason is because the Japanese public does not believe that “defense” has anything to do with the motivations of Abe et al. cronies of the Meiji Oligarchy.