Commentary / Japan

Nation's political culture stands at major crossroads

Discussions on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposed security legislation have brought to the fore a clear polarization of political culture in Japan. One of the trends is anti-intellectualism. The other is civic culture pushing for democratization.

Anti-intellectualism has permeated not only movements that champion nationalism and segments of the mass media, but also political circles. In the first place, the security legislation itself can be deemed as a product of anti-intellectualism. Many scholars of constitutional law and former heads of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau have declared that the legislation violates the war-renouncing Constitution.

The Abe administration has been unable to provide convincing rebuttals to their argument. Because the Self-Defense Forces are allowed to possess weapons only for the purpose of defending the nation, exercising the right to collective self-defense to defend another country is out of the question under the Constitution. In the Diet deliberations so far, Abe and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani have not answered straight on the questions raised by lawmakers but instead spent their time dodging the questions.

In the cultural sphere, authors and politicians who do not hesitate to flaunt their anti-intellectualism continue to fuel discrimination and prejudice. Novelist Naoki Hyakuta, who was invited to speak at a gathering of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers supposedly to discuss issues related to culture and the arts, suggested that the two local newspapers in Okinawa, which are critical of national government policies, must be shut down, while LDP lawmakers trumpeted controlling TV reports by pressuring the sponsors of their programs.

Some politicians and conservative journalists even tried to justify such remarks in the name of freedom of speech. Japan is a country where attempts to defame others through demagogy or negate freedom are condoned in the name of free speech.

Anti-intellectualism has diminished the quality of political parties. The LDP has lost much of the breadth of perspectives and sense of balance that it used to have. Few voices of criticism have arisen from within the party against the Abe administration’s push of the security bills. It lacks up-and-coming leaders who can step in to remedy a situation when Abe makes mistakes. This is a crisis both for the LDP and Japan.

On the other hand, a new wave of civic culture has emerged and is spreading, triggered by the movement opposing the security legislation. In 1960, the attempt by Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi — Abe’s grandfather — to revise the Japan-U.S. security treaty met with large-scale protest movements. However, the culture of civic political movements eventually petered out.

It was only after the 2011 Fukushima crisis gave rise to the movement against nuclear power that citizens reacquired the practice of taking to the streets on a daily basis to raise their voices on important policy issues. Civic political movements shrank after the LDP returned to power, but they continued. A new movement led by students has built on such forces to generate public opinion. The students in the movement are using email and the Line texting app to expand their organizations and are successfully mobilizing thousands, even tens of thousands, of people in rallies around the Diet compound.

Such actions by students have in turn led scholars to be ashamed of their own silence — with many of them starting to speak up against the security legislation and to express their opinions on other political issues, including to call on the government to clearly state Japan’s remorse and apologize for its wartime aggression when Abe issues an official statement marking the 70th anniversary in August of the end of World War II.

Approval ratings of the Abe Cabinet in media opinion polls dropped sharply after the administration railroaded the security bills through the Lower House, falling from around 50 percent to less than 40 percent in some surveys, while disapproval ratings surged in many polls to top the approval figures.

Meanwhile, facing strong public criticism, Abe had to scrap the controversial ¥250 billion plan for the new National Stadium — the main venue of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics — even though an order for construction had already been placed with a general contractor. People harbored a specific anger because the issue at stake was how taxpayer money would be used. The episode proved that public opinion is not powerless against government action.

In East Asia, pro-democracy movements began to take off in the latter half of the 1980s, starting with the ones led by students in South Korea and Taiwan. Japan has long defined itself as a pioneer of democracy in Asia and supposedly viewed these nearby movements in a favorable light. In reality, however, democracy in Japan has been confined to the system of political parties and parliament — which is just a form. It must be said that in fact Japan is right now following the democracy movements that started in its neighbors, such as South Korea, and is trying to create a new political culture of its own

Seventy years after the end of WWII, the nation’s political democracy is at a major crossroads. Will Japan, dragged down by egocentric anti-intellectualism and suspension of judgment, destroy the peace and stability built on its postwar democracy? Or will the new civic culture turn the nation into a more mature democracy? I hope that the Japanese people will make a wise choice as we think of war and peace in the war anniversary month.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.

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