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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.

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