July 15, 2015, will go down in Japanese history. As what, though? The day democracy’s decline became irreversible? Or the day democracy’s decline was reversed?
The Wall Street Journal covered the core event of the drama in these terms: “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a significant stride (on the 15th) toward his goal of expanding the role of Japan’s military, as the main chamber of parliament passed a package of national security bills despite scant public support and doubts about its constitutionality.
“The passage of the bills enables Mr. Abe to make good on a promise he made to U.S. lawmakers to approve ‘by this summer’ legislation that allows Japan to take on more responsibility under their bilateral security agreement.”
The stunning complacency the Journal betrays here echoes Abe’s own. Somebody needed to make the point that Abe’s primary accountability is not to U.S. lawmakers but to the people of Japan. Cynical calculations that the people of Japan wouldn’t bother were not unreasonable. The tepidity of Japanese democracy hit bottom last December, when a record-low turnout of voters awarded a rousing majority to a leader whose ultra-nationalist conservatism is — as survey after post-election survey has shown — little to public taste, reminiscent as it is of the disastrous turn Japanese history took in the 1930s and ’40s.
Seventy years of democracy have not enriched the meaning of that word here beyond its most prosaic sense of the right to mind your private affairs more or less free from government interference. Its more inspiring significance — “government of the people, by the people, for the people” — resonates feebly. Through the 1970s and ’80s, Japan was busy making and spending money. In the recessionary ’90s it turned to bemoaning the lack of money to be made. Young people in the ’90s threw themselves into sex; in the 2000s they withdrew from that and from so much else that by 2010 we found ourselves in the satori generation among “parasite singles” and “herbivorous males.” Desire itself had died, succumbing not to the Buddhist enlightenment that satori originally signified but to listless apathy.
Years pass and nothing happens — then, suddenly, something does, and nothing is the same. What is the catalyst that turns passivity into activism? It’s like asking why this particular straw and not that one broke the camel’s back. Abe’s administration had defied popular opinion before — repeatedly and successfully: its moves to reactivate idled nuclear power plants, its unpopular state secrecy laws, its advocacy of state-supervised patriotic education, its brusque dismissal of opposition in Okinawa to U.S. bases there, its thinly veiled warnings to the supposedly free press to toe the line or else — all aroused rumblings of discontent that were, however, nothing more than what any government learns to live with.
On July 1, 2014, the Abe Cabinet adopted a resolution sharply reinterpreting the Constitution as permitting what for decades had been regarded as forbidden: a global military role for the “pacifist” nation under the name “collective self-defense.” Even then there were few signs of what subsequently began to gel as Abe’s ruling coalition, numerically superior to any opposition challenge, prepared to ram through the Diet’s Lower House a legislative package enshrining that reinterpretation. On July 15, after a debate whose striking features were the vagueness of the government’s explanations and its hamfisted bullying of opposition lawmakers posing awkward questions, the Lower House voted, brushing aside the doubts of Constitutional scholars and of the public, who said — reasonably, as Abe himself acknowledged — that they remained in the dark as to precisely what was being foisted on them.
That was it. The camel sank to its knees. “Hey, aren’t you going to the Diet?” tweeted 23-year-old Meiji Gakuin University student Aki Okuda when news of the passage came out — and soon 5,000 people, mostly students, had gathered there, waving placards reading “War is over!” “We will not tolerate Abe’s politics!” “Don’t get our children killed!” Sunday Mainichi magazine ventured a bold headline: “It’s begun — 300,000 people surrounding the Diet!”
That figure — 300,000 — is deeply significant. It takes us back to May 1960. The prime minister of the day, soon to be ousted, was Nobusuke Kishi, whose administration forced through the Diet a revised Japan-U.S. security pact in a manner strikingly similar to Abe’s handling of the current security legislation. Three hundred thousand is the prevailing estimate of the size of the enraged crowd that massed in front of the prime minister’s official residence, shouting for Kishi’s head. They got it. He resigned a month later.
To Abe, age 6 at the time, this is living history. He is Kishi’s grandson. He was close to his grandfather and a witness to his fall. In his 2006 book “Towards a Beautiful Japan” he recalls his grandfather saying, in the spirit of the old samurai indomitability he evidently felt himself to represent, “I am not wrong. If I am killed, that is my dearest wish.”
Things are not quite so fraught now. The protesters are chanting for change, not baying for blood. Their numbers are growing but 300,000 remains a long way off. Abe has said nothing so far suggestive of self-sacrifice. But in a country so long politically inert, something may be stirring — evolution, if not revolution. The organization to watch goes by the acronym SEALDs — Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy. Founded last year in angry response to the state secrets law, it began as a handful of tweeters but soon swelled into crowds of demonstrators.
One of its organizers is Aki Okuda, who tells Sunday Mainichi, “We can’t leave things up to this administration. Abe as the most powerful man in the country is trying to pass an unconstitutional war law. And what is to become of democracy?”
What indeed? A fellow SEALDs organizer and Meiji Gakuin University student who is not named adds, “People say the Internet generation has withdrawn into a virtual world. Nonsense!”
Prove it — and those of us who dared say such a thing will tender a graciously and joyful apology.
Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.