The Japanese people may soon be asked to make a momentous decision in a nationwide referendum. As I write this, the major political parties are at loggerheads over conditions under which that referendum will be conducted. Behind the closed doors of the Diet, but barely touched on in the media, this debate will lead to a decision that, perhaps more than any other, will affect the lives of everyone living in Japan.

The subject of the referendum, which could be held as early as next year, is the revision of Japan’s postwar Constitution, specifically Article 9. This prohibits Japan from having unfettered armed forces, and requires the country to “renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has long sought to scrap Article 9, which they regard as a restriction artificially imposed on Japan by the postwar Allied Occupation. Now the LDP wants to have its cake and eat it too, in the form of a quick, unopposed victory in the referendum with, hidden beneath the icing, military forces then legally empowered to burst forth and fight outside Japan.

The LDP had hoped to tie the hands of potential opponents and limit debate on the referendum’s conditions by barring people from “bearing false reports or distorted facts . . . on the referendum.” For “false reports or distorted facts,” read “any allegation that the continued renunciation of force is in the best interests of Japan.”

Fortunately, largely thanks to persistent opposition by the Democratic Party of Japan, these restrictions on freedom of speech have been dropped from the LDP’s referendum bill — leaving the stage set for lively debate on the pros and cons of this historic vote.

But will there be a lively debate? I seriously doubt it.

Word-slinging matches

Japan’s mass media has created a situation in which meaningful and profound debate on important political issues is skillfully stifled. Newspapers give over precious little space to such matters, having become virtual lifestyle organs that use big words to describe small concepts. As for television, there are discussions on the commercial channels that are little more than word-slinging matches, or soporific deadpan debates on NHK — and next to nothing in between.

Consequently, no real in-depth polemics are going on in public in this country.

Instead, the Japanese are consistently portrayed in the media as one big happy family of 126 million people who essentially agree on everything except which baseball team is the greatest and how many quiz programs you can pack into three hours of television time.

But it wasn’t always so.

Had there been a referendum on the future of Japanese militarism in 1956, what kind of debates would you have witnessed indeed!

Back then, a host of weighty magazines, headed by Sekai, carried monthly articles on every aspect of social policy. The newspapers were ideologically pitted against each other, boasting polemic thinkers and essayists in their columns. A generation of postwar writers were ensuring that the Japanese public would not be able to turn their eyes from atrocities perpetrated by their military on the peoples of Asia and the Pacific.

Shohei Ooka’s brilliant novel “Nobi (Fires on the Plain),” about the conduct of Japanese soldiers at Leyte in the Philippines in 1945, gave a lesson to people everywhere: Men forced to go to war turn into beasts. Kon Ichikawa’s superb filming of this story reinforced that message. It was not lost on the citizens of postwar Japan.

Taijun Takeda’s novel “Hikarigoke (Luminous Moss)” went a step further, depicting men in war who sank into cannibalism in order to survive. The story was later adapted into an opera by Ikuma Dan. It premiered at the Osaka Expo in 1970, where I saw it and was overwhelmed by its power.

Even more than these works, Michio Takeyama’s novel “Biruma no Tategoto (Harp of Burma)” cut the Japanese nation to its collective quick, being the story of a Buddhist monk who stayed in Burma after the war seeking redemption for the sins of his countrymen. Again Ichikawa filmed this heart-rending story in what is one of the greatest antiwar movies of all time.

Magazines, newspapers, books, the big screen . . . once they all featured the theme of the horrors of war. There was no way that Japanese children growing up in the 1950s could profess ignorance of the crimes of the nation’s military machine. A national referendum then would have come to the foregone conclusion that a Japan lacking in effective democratic institutions should refuse to rearm.

Politicians harboring resentment

By the 1960s, however, the number of introspective war movies had plummeted, and Japan was awash not with embarrassing stories of past military shame but with giddy predictions of future economic aggrandizement.

All the while, a generation of conservative Japanese politicians brought up in prewar Japan were harboring resentment. Many of the atrocities associated with Japanese wartime behavior were, according to the postwar neonationalists who founded and came to control the LDP, aberrations. Some soldiers had gone overboard. Some unfortunate incidents had occurred. This should not, they claimed, prevent Japan from having strong and proud armed forces in the future.

Even the popularly hailed Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida (in office 1946-47, then again 1948-54) was personally opposed to a Constitution that negated a vigorous role in society for the military. He, furthermore, never sincerely trusted democracy and felt it unsuited to the Japanese way of life.

Subsequent prime ministers, notably Nobusuke Kishi (who was imprisoned, but never tried, as a Class-A war criminal), Yasuhiro Nakasone and the current one, Junichiro Koizumi, have longed for the day when Japan would again become a military power. By law this can only be accomplished through revision of the Constitution; and that requires a national referendum.

Judging by the disinterest among the populace today in just what Japan’s military “accomplished” in the past — and by the dearth of realistic debate on the consequences of constitutional revision — we can expect a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am referendum campaign orchestrated by the LDP and its apologists in the media. The railroading is securely on track.

At present it is not too late to make amends for what happened during the war. But if the Japanese people do not come fully to terms with their past, and instead choose to legitimize the military in its previous form, you can be sure it will then be too late. With that, the peaceful strains of the postwar era could soon become inaudible over the thump, thump, thump of men on the march.

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