“Historic,” that much-overused word, seems almost acceptable as a description of the Upper House elections earlier this month that gave Japan — for the first time in its postwar history — a government strong enough to get serious about rewriting the Constitution.
Arguably other factors make it historic too. One is the participation of the youngest people ever to vote in a Japanese election: 18- and 19-year-olds. Another was discerned by American political scientist Gerald Curtis, who, writing mid-campaign for the Wall Street Journal, remarked, “Never in Japan’s postwar history has the political opposition been as enfeebled as it is now.”
In the same article, Curtis identified another sense in which the election was looking historic: “The campaign … is shaping up to be one of the dullest in recent memory.”
It was dull, because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wanted it dull and did everything in his considerable power to make it dull. The public could have challenged him — by insisting, for example, that he break his mysterious and ominous silence regarding his plans for the Constitution. But the opposition, which in fact did issue the challenge, is, as Curtis observed, feeble, and voters seemed not to hear. The election was about Abenomics, Abe said, not about the Constitution. Fine, said voters, in effect letting him set the agenda.
This — speaking of history — was history rewriting itself. Had voters forgotten 2013? It was only three years ago. Upper House elections in July of that year were also, Abe declared, about Abenomics and nothing but Abenomics.
Apparently there is something about that tinselly little catchphrase, “Abenomics,” that makes the economic reform package it names sound pathbreaking, dynamic and successful, in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary. It resonates. It hypnotizes. It blinds and deafens voters to other serious concerns. Six months after coasting to electoral victory on the strength of it, Abe’s government in December 2013 rammed an unpopular law through the Diet mandating the strict protection of vaguely defined official secrets. Critics derided it as undemocratic, a pall on the free flow of information.
Is he planning something similar this time around for constitutional revision?
The suspicion is strong that he might be. Shukan Post magazine reports a conversation between him and former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara that took place in December 2012. Ishihara, whose unabashed nationalism makes him a natural political ally of Abe’s, is reported as saying, “Abe-san! Let’s not revise the Constitution piecemeal. The current Constitution was foisted on us by the (American-led postwar) Occupation … It needs to be thrown out and rewritten from scratch.”
Abe, Shukan Post says, did not reply — but Ishihara’s views, it explains, are typical among the conservatives who comprise Abe’s base. “They’ve waited 70 years for this,” Shukan Post says. “They now feel their time has come.”
What is the “this” for which they’ve waited so long? The answer is: “two-thirds.” Constitutional revision, before it can be submitted to the popular referendum that would finalize it, must have the approval of two-thirds of both houses of the Diet. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and smaller like-minded pro-revisionist parties already commanded two-thirds of the Lower House. Now they command two-thirds of the Upper House as well. Indeed, “their time has come.”
And yet, Abe said the July 10 election was not about the Constitution!
Well, campaigning politicians can say what they like — it’s up to the public, kept informed by vigorous and probing news media, to bring them up short when they talk nonsense. Astonishingly, nothing of the sort happened.
On second thought, maybe it’s not so astonishing. A post-election survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun asked 150 eligible voters randomly selected across the country whether they knew what “two-thirds” signified. Eighty-three of the 150 — 55.3 percent — did not.
Even making full allowance for the small sample size, it is a remarkable revelation of ignorance in an information age that should make such elementary, fundamental and crucial issues common knowledge.
Ignorance on this scale — assuming the 150 the Mainichi polled are at all representative — portends darkly for Japan’s democracy. Perhaps it is not to be wondered at. In Abe’s Japan the media perform at best a partial function, hobbled not only by the secrets law but by oblique government threats to cancel broadcast licenses in defense of its definition of objectivity. Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders this year ranked Japan’s press freedom 72nd worldwide — ahead of Lesotho (73rd) but behind Tanzania (71st).
For argument’s sake, let’s accept as true the dubious proposition that Japanese voters don’t care about democracy, that only the economy matters to them. For what economic success is Abe’s government being so handsomely rewarded? Forty percent of Japan’s workforce works part-time. One Japanese child in six, by the government’s own measure, lives in poverty. Day care centers and elderly care facilities are increasingly overwhelmed by a rising demand going largely unaddressed.
The Abe government did not cause these long-festering problems, but it hasn’t solved them either. The “virtuous circle” that Abenomics was supposed to generate — corporations prospering on the cheap yen investing more, hiring more and paying more, causing consumers to spend more — has not occurred.
It will, Abe promised throughout the campaign. Ironically, no one believed him more fervently than the teenage voters newly added to the electoral rolls. Of all demographic sectors, you’d think youth would respond most sourly to a government whose conservative values are so redolent of the past — but no. Polls show them embracing Abenomics more warmly than their elders: 50 percent of them support the governing coalition. They have their uncertain futures to think of, and stability, as represented by the status quo, is what they want — or think they want.
Are they equipped to judge? Students, it seems, are as badly served by their schools as adults are by the media. Politics is a taboo subject, as an Asahi Shimbun article pointed out while the campaign was still underway. The article featured an elementary school teacher who had spoken to his fourth-graders of “peace” and a senior high school teacher who’d had his class discuss nuclear power versus renewable energy. Both teachers were subsequently cautioned by their principals. Their lessons, it was felt, were “biased.”
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”