by Brian Hioe
Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Public Domain
AFTER A RESOUNDING victory by Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in Upper House elections, it would appear that the ground has been cleared for Abe to push for the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. Article 9 of the Japanese constitution legally prevents Japan from waging war, except in self-defense to aggression, although Japan maintains a well-equipped and sizable Self-Defense Force which is for all practical intents a military—just one legally forbidden from engaging in war.
Abe wishes to push for a legal reinterpretation of Article 9 which allow for Japan to allow for “collective self-defense”, which implies that Japan could potentially intervene with its military in defense of its allies. But whatever this rhetoric of “collective self-defense”, the underlying thrust of the reinterpretation would be to legally allow the Japanese military to participate in military conflict in the future, and this is how it is understood in Japanese public discourse.
The reinterpretation of Article 9 has been a pivotal issue for Abe, likely as something he views as a historical mission entrusted to him and something crucial to his legacy as a politician. As the scion of a political dynasty and the grandson of wartime Japanese prime minister Nobusuke Kishi—a figure crucial in setting up Japan’s post-war political order—the task of ridding the constitution of Article 9 in order to reconstitute the Japanese military is one which is highly likely to be a personal mission for Abe.
Abe’s particular brand of political conservatism harkens back to nostalgia for the period of Japanese empire, with the rosy view of Japanese empire as a glorious time for Japan that Japan should seek to return to. The Abe administration has advanced historical whitewashing of the crimes of the Japanese empire—such as denying the use of comfort women by the Japanese military and claiming that the Japanese empire was only acting in the interests of preserving peace in East Asia. As such, restoring the capability of the Japanese military to undertake armed conflict would go hand-in-hand with Abe’s imperial nostalgia. In such cases when Abe has backed down on issues of historical denial, this is only when it proved necessary to cement geostrategic alliances against the threat of China.
However, apart from this being a personal ideological crusade for Abe, another likely intent for him to remove the obstacle of Article 9 for the Japanese Self-Defense Force is because of the military threat of China. And this probably with no small amount of prodding by America to fall in line with the Rebalance Towards Asia aimed at containing rising China, Japan being a client state of America, and historically subordinate to America on military matters. This is given the legal inability of the Japanese Self-Defense Force to wage war, which is the justification for American military bases in Japan. But at this point in time, some seventy years after the Pacific War, it is in American interests for Japan to rearm.
It is that in past years the Abe administration has met popular resistance against the reinterpretation of Article 9. The notion of Japan as a former aggressor country which will never again fight war is quite integral to the post-war Japanese identity. As such, within Japanese political discourse, Abe’s sometimes phrased in terms of a potential “return to Japanese fascism”. Past years have seen the rise of ultra-nationalist politicians as Shintaro Ishihara or Toru Hashimoto, whose actions verge on the authoritarian in attempting to instill forms of nationalist education in youth. Likewise, under the Abe administration, Japanese press freedoms suffered, with self-censorship by media outlets that feared becoming targeted by laws to protect state secrets on controversial issues as nuclear energy, the issue of comfort women, or the revisionist history advanced by right-wing nationalists.
As such, the past year saw the largest protests in Japan since the 1960s against the reinterpretation of Article 9, surpassing even the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear protests of 2012. Aligning with the past two years of youth movements across Asia, this protest movement was fronted largely by college students from the Students’ Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) organization. Though SEALDs only seemed to consist of several dozen students in its core group, SEALDs was able to mobilize thousands of individuals at its height and had chapters across Japan.
However, with the victory of Abe’s LDP in Upper House elections, does this mean the defeat of the student movement in Japan? SEALDs geared the majority of its energy towards elections and planned to dissolve after elections. The SEALDs-led student movement was also noticeably more politically conservative than the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear movement, deliberately seeking to exclude leftist elements of the movement which might have drawn controversy, and drawing controversy for liberal inflections of Japanese nationalism present in its take on issues. Still, the defeat of such a large popular movement is disconcerting, reminiscent of the failure of the 2012 anti-nuclear movement to prevent reactor restarts in Japan and eventually dissipating once momentum had been lost. What the future of the movement against constitutional reinterpretation will be remains unknown.
SEALDs Kansai demonstration. Photo credit: noxxx710/YouTube
Likewise, it is that with the victory of the LDP, the prospects for multiparty democracy in Japan are grim. Unlike South Korea or Taiwan, Japan did not have a post-war authoritarian period, but like its East Asian neighbors, Japan had a history of one party rule by the LDP until the emergence of opposition forces in the 2000s. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was able to rule from 2009 to 2012, but its inability to sufficiently distinguish its policies from those of the LDP on key issues as nuclear power and American military bases in Okinawa, or to stimulate growth in the economy, this leading voters to eventually return to voting for the LDP—seeing as the DPJ did not seem so different from the LDP, but the LDP seemed to offer a stronger promise of stability as the party with a longer history of governance. The defeat of the Democratic Party, the opposition coalition in 2016 elections, illustrates that voters have still not forgotten or forgiven the failures of the DPJ.
What next, then, for Japan? There is presently the possibility of a constitutional crisis occurring from the Japanese emperor stepping down from his position, something which does not usually happen because the emperor usually is succeeded after he dies in office. The present Japanese emperor, Akihito, has rebuked Abe’s right-wing nationalism in the past and some interpret Akihito’s stepping down as being his attempt to prevent the reinterpretation of Article 9 by deliberately provoking a constitutional crisis.
But perhaps all this ultimately returns to the failures of the student movement. Notably, despite attempting to aestheticize political activism and make it trendy and fashionable for young people, SEALDs attempted to keep to the political center. Like its political opponents, SEALDs also has had its own form of nostalgia for a rosy past, maintaining that democracy existed in Japan and drawing upon its own nostalgia for the good old days of “peace” which the reinterpretation of Article 9 would threaten by dragging Japan into foreign wars. This may also explain the insufficient amount of attention paid by SEALDs to the violences perpetuated by the Japanese government against non-Japanese populations within Japan itself, such as Zainichi Koreans or Okinawans.
Perhaps what will be necessary in the future for movements in Japan is to break with such liberal assumptions, to point out that despite the brief political oppositions which have arisen in Japan as the DPJ, the one party rule of the LDP from the end of World War II to the present is proof that Japan is not a democracy—and that the path to realizing democracy in Japan is still a long one.