Is crime justified in the service of good?

It’s an ancient question. “Thou shalt not kill,” says the Bible — war in God’s service being an implicit exception. Then there’s Don Quixote, lover of justice, upholder of virtue, who founders on the impossibility of doing good without committing outrages. His name became an adjective — quixotic — for a certain kind of activism that fails to allow for the practical limits life imposes on ideals.

“Quixotic” is a word Shukan Bunshun magazine applies to the self-described “Kantei Santa” — kantei meaning the prime minister’s official residence, Santa needing no introduction, surprising though it is to see him at work so far from Christmas. “Kantei Santa” was the signature on a warning note attached to a miniature drone found in late April on the roof of the prime minister’s residence. “Radioactive,” said the note. The stunt, it explained, was a protest against the government’s drive to restart nuclear power stations idled in the wake of the meltdown catastrophe in Fukushima in March 2011. A quantity of earth in a container attached to the drone was in fact found to be mildly radioactive. “Santa” reportedly told police he dug it up in Fukushima.

The “Santa” police have in custody is 40-year-old Yasuo Yamamoto of Obama, Fukui Prefecture. In Shukan Bunshun’s profile, Yamamoto comes across as sufficiently idiosyncratic to beg the question: Is the crime attributed to him explicable simply as the work of one emotionally unstable individual, or is there a broader significance?

Many people are against the nuclear restarts; Yamamoto is not alone there. Japan is a democracy. Democracy means the government is responsive to the popular will, as freely expressed via the media, demonstrations, elections. In undemocratic societies, citizens must resort to crime to make themselves heard. Insisting on being heard is itself a crime.

Japan is a democracy but, as many observers have been noting lately, a flawed one. It comes perilously close, for one thing, to being a one-party state, the Liberal Democratic Party having held power for all but three of the past 60 years. Gerrymandered electoral districts are unrepresentative to the point that the Supreme Court last November, following numerous lower courts, cast doubt on their constitutionality.

Seemingly undemocratic government initiatives lately are growing increasingly bold, conspicuous among them a new state secrets Law that potentially criminalizes a key aspect of a journalist’s job — namely, the pursuit of public information.

Proposed revisions to the 68-year-old Constitution seem to weaken its protection of democratic rights while strengthening the national military. Some at least among those old enough to remember Japan’s undemocratic and militarist past, and some younger people attentive enough to listen to them, are not reassured by the benign official phrase “proactive pacifism.” Should they be?

Elections are the lifeblood of democracy, and Japan has just been through two of them — one national, the other a nationwide series of local ones. The first, in December 2014, gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a resounding victory in spite of widespread unease, consistently surfacing in opinion polls, over the course he is charting. The second, in April, was marred by a curious fact unworthy of a vigorous and healthy democracy — 22 percent of incumbents ran unopposed. No wonder voter turnout sank to record lows — less than half on average. Turnout for the national election in December was little better — 52.66 percent, also a record low.

Can democracy survive public apathy? Japan is not the only developed nation facing that question. Democracy prolonged is democracy taken for granted. Infant democracies do better in that regard. Voters take courage from situations that demand courage, streaming en masse to the polls in defiance of army thugs, terrorist threats, even terrorist bombs.

“Sato! Sato! Sato!” Anyone who has lived through a Japanese election campaign will know what that refers to — the incessant screeching of candidates’ names into loudspeakers mounted on campaign vans that roll through your neighborhood and mine, turning daily life into a nightmare of cacophony. Again: No wonder people don’t vote; they feel belittled and insulted. In 70 years of democracy, can campaigning have failed to mature beyond this?

Don’t blame the candidates, said the Asahi Shimbun in a pre-election report. The rules that bind them are strict, minute and seemingly meaningless. “No other country has campaign rules as strict as Japan’s,” Waseda University professor Minoru Tsubogo tells the newspaper. No door-to-door campaigning. No ad balloons. No candidates’ speeches from moving vehicles. No posters larger than 40×30 cm. Each individual poster must bear a certifying seal. Internet campaigning was finally permitted in 2013 but seems not to have caught on. So it’s “Sato-Sato-Sato,” rookie candidates being the worst offenders because the incumbents are already known. The system doesn’t change because the incumbents who can change it are its beneficiaries — which may have something to do with Japan’s virtual one-party statehood.

A society so rigid in some respects can be curiously lax in others. If drones were regulated half as closely as election campaigning, Kantei Santa would never have got off the ground. Granted, technological progress this rapid is bound to outpace legislation; still, Japan, having received a sharp lesson in vulnerability from the Islamic State terrorist group last winter, appears curiously inattentive to the security risks involved.

A former Air Self-Defense Forces enlistee with special skills in electronics, Yamamoto had ample opportunity to ponder the implications of nuclear power — his native Fukui hosts more reactors than any other prefecture. On his blog he named Ernesto “Che” Guevara — not Don Quixote — as his inspiration. Che’s personality and revolutionary zeal were magnetically charismatic. They still are, nearly 50 years after his death. Did pretending to be Che fill a void in Yamamoto’s apparently humdrum, lonely life? Or was he, in his own mind, offering himself, Che-like, as a sacrificial victim to a nation he saw going astray?

Democracy. The Asahi, apropos the April “Sato-Sato” elections, offered its own reflections on the subject. Its exemplar of living democracy was the county council of Cornwall, England, where citizen participation is frequent and impassioned. When local libraries were being closed last year due to budget deficits, the council heard an earful — with respectful attention — from a 10-year-old boy defending his right to read. An Internet campaign was launched to save the libraries.

Imagine that happening in Japan! And yet why shouldn’t it? They’re closing libraries here too.

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com

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