by Brian Hioe

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IT WOULD SEEM that the specter of seventy years ago is haunting Asia lately. On the one hand, we have China’s mass spectacle of the military parade celebrating the Chinese victory over Japan during the Sino-Japanese War which took place in Beijing during the past week. On the other hand, we have widespread protest in Japan against the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, traditionally understood as the “pacifist clause” of the Japanese constitution which forbid the waging of future war by Japan after the brutalities of World War II.

While both events have seen international coverage, in the case of Japan, protests against the Abe administration-led constitution reinterpretation had been ongoing for some months. It is only now that with a set of large-scale demonstrations in Tokyo which have attracted over one hundred thousand participants that demonstrations are being reported on internationally.

What has attracted attention has in particular been the participation of of young people, as spearheaded by the SEALDs group. SEALDs is credited with having made popularized protest among young people through the use of skillful graphic design in its advertising and a protest aesthetic which has made protest fashionable. SEALDs itself has came under some criticism for occasional expressions of vague nationalism, an incident in which a Zainichi Korean professor came under attack by members of the group, and incidents in which SEALDs criticized survivors of the Fukushima incident who have refused to move back to Fukushima as in some way cowardly. Protests organized by SEALDs seem largely Tokyo-oriented, with demonstrations in other Japanese urban centers appearing to be decidedly smaller at present.

However, if the present anti-constitutional reform movement is the largest social movement since the 2012 anti-nuclear movement, one year after the Fukushima incident, it is that social movements in Japan have faced difficulties attracting younger participants—and SEALDs has succeeded in doing this. We may broadly align present events in Japan with the series of social movements which have broken out in Asia in recent years, alongside Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. All three movements, which saw the mass participation of young people, were also products of environments in which participating in social movements was something which became “fashionable” or “cool” among young people.

PhotoCreditSEALDS4SEALDs members at a demonstration. SEALDs has been responsible for many of the protest banners and slogans which have circulated at protests, often in English. Photo credit: SEALDs

Yet if the Sunflower Movement and Umbrella Movement can broadly be attributed to anxiety on the part of Taiwan and Hong Kong about China’s encroachment on territorial sovereignty, we can also point to present protests in Japan as also motivated indirectly by anxiety of China. Namely, the Abe administration’s reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution in the present is in large part motivated by anxiety over China’s growing economic, political, and military might in the Asia-Pacific region.

If anxiety over the so-called “China factor” was a critical factor behind the outbreak of the Sunflower Movement and Umbrella Movement, this was because the KMT government of Taiwan and the CY Leung administration in Hong Kong sought to draw Taiwan and Hong Kong close to China in a fashion which infringed upon the territorial sovereignty of both. Thus, the Sunflower Movement and Umbrella Movement were both movements simultaneously directed against Chinese encroachment against Taiwan’s or Hong Kong’s sovereignty and governments in Taiwan and Hong Kong which were pro-Beijing in nature, never mind what that might mean for the freedoms of residents of Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Present protests against the Abe administration’s reinterpretation of Article 9 differ in nature where the Abe administration is taking a decidedly militarist and nationalist line against China. The actions of the Abe administration which the Japanese people find to infringe upon personal freedoms in Japan, what with recent enforcement of the so-called Secrecy Act as a way to silence political criticism, as well as threatening in regards to the potential to provoke military conflict in the Asia-Pacific region.

But if, for example, left-leaning participants of the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan have seen fit to organize protests in solidarity with anti-constitutional reform protests in Japan, what would be shared is a sense of common cause between Taiwanese and Japanese young people in resisting the authoritarian actions of their respective national governments. From a certain perspective, after all, it would be that military force being put back on the table by Japan would be beneficial for Taiwan in resisting Chinese aggression. No less than former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-Hui, for example, himself rather nostalgic for Taiwan’s period of Japanese colonization, has sought to align Taiwan with the Abe administration and right-wing forces aligned with it.

Recent pageantry on the part of the Chinese government is aimed at threatening a rearmed Japan after the reinterpretation of Article. And it may be the Abe administration itself probably also would like to flex Japanese military muscle as part of its nationalist nostalgia for the era of past Japanese empire. But it is also probable that moves on part of the Abe administration aimed at remilitarizing Japan are in part because of America’s desire for Japan, its client state, to join recent foreign policy moves aimed at counterbalancing rising Chinese power.

Thus, it may be that we are hurtling towards a period of increased geopolitical tensions between China and Japan, behind which is increasing tensions between America and China. Yet it may be that if we are to avoid conflict between East Asian powers, what is desperately needed is resistance on the part of the people in different countries against the militarist aggression that their respective national governments would push for. And this may precisely be what we see in Japan presently.

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