That’s it? It’s over?
“Scattered like leaves in the autumn wind,” sighs Shukan Shincho magazine, speaking of the massive nationwide demonstrations that, through the summer, heralded (to some) a new political awakening of the Japanese masses (or something). The protesters’ immediate target was new security legislation that robs Japan of its constitutional pacifism — but big as that issue was and is, a bigger one looms in the background: the evolution (revolution?) from passive democracy to active democracy.
“Down with war!” “Don’t destroy Article 9!” — so the sea of placards exclaimed, Article 9 being the Constitution’s ban on war as a means of settling international conflicts. That so much excitement could fizzle so soon testifies, perhaps (or perhaps not, as we shall see), to the shortness of memory in a world of ceaseless news, endless newness, the infinite capacity of the new to swamp the old — “old” meaning yesterday, if not this morning seen in the light of noon.
It’s a situation made for satire, and Shukan Shincho goes to town — or rather, four analysts it asks for comments do. “Being a curious fellow,” writes National Defense Academy professor emeritus Masamori Sase, “I went down to have a look at the demonstrations in front of the Diet building.” The anti-war placards and flyers were no surprise, but some signs struck him as peculiarly off-message: “Give us back Okinawa!” “Down with NHK!” NHK? Why? “Because they’re trying to jack up their fees!” he was told.
OK — so the protest is not just anti-war, it’s anti-wrong, or anti-anything-seen-as-wrong. Fair enough. But what was that song he heard some protesters singing? He listened more closely. Was it possible? Sure enough, his ears had not deceived him: “Stand up, damned of the Earth / Stand up, prisoners of starvation…” — “The Internationale,” the famous 19th-century hymn to revolution. “This,” snapped the salt-tongued Sase, “is mixing miso and s—-” — a metaphor conveying, presumably, a garbling of contexts amounting to incoherence. “If this represents the demonstrators’ level of awareness,” he writes, “I doubt they’ve even read the security legislation they’re opposing.”
Atsuyuki Sasa, a Cabinet-level security adviser in the 1980s, recalls facing down demonstrators as a police officer in the ’60s and ’70s. Now there was revolutionary passion! The agitators of that bygone era were out to change society. They came armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails — menacing, to be sure, but at least you knew what they were thinking; you knew where you stood with them, whereas this current crop — moms with baby carriages among them — seem nonviolent enough (“The Internationale” notwithstanding), but is seeming believing? Not to Sasa. He echoes Sase in seeing in them no unified objective, unlike their club-wielding grandfathers united behind grim leftist ideology, and as for the youngsters being against war, all that amounts to, Sasa says, is “I don’t want to die” — “egotism, in short,” he adds, “and there’s no telling what people will do in defense of their egos.” No telling indeed: “Today’s students don’t express their feelings … but in the Internet age they can easily make some pretty terrifying weapons” — sarin, for instance.
Infinite empowerment and infinite naivete are a potentially explosive mix. Commentator Eiko Oya, however, taking a lighter view, seems more amused than frightened. “Isn’t everyone anti-war?” she asks. “Being anti-war is like being anti-fire. How innocent can you get?”
Besides, she says, demonstrations are undemocratic: “Democracy is elections, democracy is elected representatives deliberating in the Diet. ‘There are lots of people in the streets demonstrating, therefore scrap this law’ — that’s not democracy, that’s a denial of democracy.”
That ignores the reality of an electoral system so skewed in favor of the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party that no enduringly credible parliamentary opposition has emerged in the past 60 years. Has the LDP really won hearts and minds to the extent its triumphant electoral record suggests? Not if decades of opinion polls are anything to go by. Oya partially undermines her own case when she adds, “But Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe is pretty childish himself. There he was on the golf course the day after the security law passed despite significant opposition — he could have at least pretended to be troubled!” Yes, it would have been a nice gesture. Well, there you have it, she says: “Citizens get the politicians they deserve.”
Sase, the National Defense Academy professor cited above, sardonically compares the summer demonstrations to summer picnics. Commentator Tomofusa Kure compares them to the late-summer Bon dance, whose languid, easygoing movements suggest peace, certainly, but not urgency. He makes another point in a more serious expression of Oya’s doubts about the democratic nature of demonstrations. Not all mass protests, Kure reminds us, have been on the side of the democratic, peace-loving angels. Japan’s first ever mass movement, he says, was a late 19th-century agitation against efforts to ease the lot of the wretchedly oppressed burakumin, Japan’s traditional outcast class. The next major uprising after that was in 1905, a bellicose display of martial passion against the peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War.
“The summer grasses — / of brave soldiers’ dreams / the aftermath,” sang haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94). Whether Shukan Shincho’s intent in quoting this famous poem (the “brave soldiers,” ironically, are in Shukan Shincho’s context the anti-warriors) is elegiac or mocking is hard to know. Either way, the magazine perhaps spoke too soon, for last Sunday there the demonstrators were again, moms with baby carriages among them, in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, marking the first month to the day of the security legislation’s passage through an LDP-dominated Diet, their placards once again proclaiming ideals that seem hopelessly vague and naive to the harder-boiled elements of humankind, vowing their struggle will continue.
Can moms with baby carriages struggle? Can students without Molotov cocktails struggle? Can the elderly — for they too are making their presence felt — struggle?
They already are — struggling against heavy odds, as they surely know. History has not been kind to peaceniks. “Isn’t everyone anti-war?” asks Oya. The answer is no.
Michael Hoffman’s forthcoming book, due out in November, is “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”
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