Last week a man set himself on fire next to Shinjuku Station to reportedly protest Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bid to lift constitutional constraints on Japan’s military forces. It was a gruesome spectacle captured on numerous smartphone videos and disseminated on social media. Good thing because the mainstream media practically ignored the most extraordinary act of political protest in the quarter century that I have lived in Japan. NHK news didn’t even mention the event, apparently playing by Pyongyang rules: Ignore the ugly truths that discredit the powers that be.

Self-immolation is a weapon of the weak, an assertion of moral authority in the face of authoritarian power, a last-resort demonstration of defiance normally confined to despotic states. Like in Tibet, where more than 130 people have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Chinese repression, cultural chauvinism and economic exploitation. Or like in Tunisia at the end of 2010, where a street vendor’s fiery protest sparked a national revolution against tyranny that inspired the Arab Spring. But a Japan Spring seems unlikely even as protests mount against Abe’s ideological agenda and moves to circumvent democracy through the special secrets law, the evisceration of Article 9 and restarting nuclear reactors in defiance of majority opinion.

Abe’s move to bulldoze through a reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution to allow for collective self-defense is opposed by most Japanese. But he is getting his way by making a mockery of Japanese democracy in bypassing established procedures for amending the Constitution. Abe is like a thief in the night sneaking in the back door to steal the heart and soul of Japan’s pacifist Constitution, and this is what angers people. The absence of any substantive public consultation and the failure to pursue revision through the front door by securing Diet approval and holding a public referendum — procedures laid out in the Constitution — raises serious questions about Abe’s commitment to democratic principles and the sugarcoated militarism he touts as “proactive pacifism.”

This artful reinterpretation is a game changer and everyone knows it, because now Japan can wage war. Abe is frog-marching the nation down what everyone understands is a slippery slope. What may start as a limited action to protect allies can easily escalate out of control while the fog of war obscures the exit sign.

The various scenarios that the Liberal Democratic Party trotted out to convince New Komeito, its coalition partner, to abandon its core principle of pacifism provide useful political cover, but are unconvincing in the court of public opinion. Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist organization that mobilizes millions of votes for the coalition, warned New Komeito, its political offshoot, not to endorse reinterpretation, sensibly advising Abe to pursue revision through proper constitutional means rather than devious ploys. But New Komeito signed off on this dubious dodging of democratic process, apparently unwilling to relinquish the whiff of power even if it entails shirking its principles. But the once formidable Socialist Party (now the tiny Social Democratic Party) knows all too well the cost of abandoning core principles for the vagaries of political power. In a bizarre coalition including the LDP, the Socialist leader Tomiichi Murayama became prime minister (1994-96), but the price of power was renouncing the party’s long-standing view that the security pact with the United States was unconstitutional. The price of this apostasy was the implosion of the Socialist Party, as members voted with their feet and left the party in droves.

New Komeito’s leaders are hoping that they can convince members that their apostasy is really a pragmatic adjustment that actually imposes limits on Japan’s use of force. Good luck with that. Chances are that the religious basis of Soka Gakkai will insulate New Komeito from an exodus, but time will tell. Members I spoke with feel betrayed and resent the party’s flip-flop on pacifism, and a backlash is certainly possible.

The bottom line is that the Japanese public thinks that Abe is more of a threat to Japan than China or North Korea. Advocates justify reinterpreting the Constitution because Japan lives in a dangerous neighborhood, with China militarizing its territorial disputes and Pyongyang punctuating bellicose rhetoric by launching missiles. But even as the Japanese public understands these threats it appears that by a vast margin it fears Abe even more and doesn’t want to hand him a blank check on security.

Essentially, the public doesn’t trust Abe to prudently exercise the right to collective self-defense and is worried that he or some successor will somehow drag the nation into war somewhere, sometime at Washington’s behest. Once the principle is adopted, all of those reassuring scenarios the LDP has conjured up over the past month suggesting that some shackles remain on Japan waging war will fade into oblivion. Team Abe’s political theater over reinterpreting the constitution has not managed to convince anyone who was not already convinced of the wisdom of doing so. Sophistry aside, Abe wants to unleash the nation’s formidable military forces, and this is what the public opposes.

Japanese pacifism and Article 9 are touchstones of national identity that reflect the prevailing norms and values that Abe is trampling. Students learn about the horrors of war in their textbooks, focusing mainly on the dreadful wartime suffering of the Japanese population. Many also visit Hiroshima and Okinawa on school trips, where they encounter graphic antiwar messages that bolster support for Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution.

Last year the box office hit about kamikaze, “Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero),” delivered a powerful antiwar message, as the protagonist tried to subvert the war effort and what he dismissed as an inhumane waste of young men’s lives on suicide missions that would have no bearing on the outcome of a war already lost. The hard-core militarists in the film are portrayed as raving sociopaths.

Abe is said to have liked the film, but did he get it?

July 1, 2014, will go down in history as a watershed in Japan’s postwar history, the day of infamy when Abe hijacked democracy by renouncing Article 9 and the nation’s pacifist postwar order in an unscrupulous manner, achieving by fiat what he didn’t dare try through established constitutional procedures. Apparently he fears the people as much as they fear him.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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