Thousands of protesters rallied in Tokyo against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's security policy as the government aims to enact legislation that would allow Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since World War Two. (Reuters Photo/Kyodo)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got his policy wish late into the night of Sept. 18. Abe’s coalition government, which has majorities in both houses of the national Diet, passed controversial legislation allowing Japanese troops to engage in military action overseas for the first time since the second world war.
This move is no surprise. Abe’s government (now in its second term) has consistently been vocal about national defense. And security laws have been changing as far back as April 2014 when the government relaxed restrictions on military hardware exports.
Three justifications for kicking pacifism
Commentators in Japan and abroad have settled on three explanations for Abe’s widely unpopular national security policies.
China and North Korea are the first and main explanation: their military belligerence in the Asian region is unsettling for a world still controlled by Western powers. Particularly in recent times, Japan sees China’s growing assertiveness as a great cause for concern. Abe wants to bolster defense to help stabilize the region.
A second explanation has to do with Japan’s desire to support international efforts, particularly by the United Nations, to quell conflicts overseas. The military support that Japan can give to the UN will help reduce violence abroad. This, it has been said, doubles as a contrived Buddhist explanation – perhaps one used to appease the anti-nuclear, peace-loving, Kōmeitō party that forms the minority in Abe’s coalition.
The final explanation links to “Abenomics,” Abe’s economic policies. Reinterpreting Article 9 bolsters the government’s earlier legislation to enable military hardware exports. Kicking 70 years of pacifism is good for business.
A scar on Japanese democracy
However convincing these arguments may be, there’s also one pivotal counter-argument that both the Japanese and international media have largely glossed over. It rolled off Opposition Leader Tatsuya Okada’s protesting tongue: the Abe government’s security policies would, he argued, “leave a big scar on Japanese democratic politics.”
What did he mean by this? At face value, Okada might simply be pointing out the tactics of Abe’s government in steam-rolling opposition in parliament and in the public sphere as well. Their heavy-handed tactics spit in the eye of the Diet’s more consultative traditions.
It’s important to remember here that, unlike many neighborliness countries, few Japanese citizens have expressed the desire to fight another war. Passing legislation that gives power to the Japanese government to wage future war is simply “unforgivable,” says Hidenori Shida, a 65-year-old IT engineer.
Koichi Nakano of Tokyo’s Sophia University agrees, saying that Japan’s postwar pacifism is something the majority of Japanese people embrace as part of their culture. They don’t want to be militaristic. Instead, what they want is for “the government to slow down so that people get a better understanding of what is happening.”
To date, those who share the government’s position on remilitarzing are in the minority at 29 percent. The vast majority believe the new security legislation is utterly unnecessary and, in some instances, unjustified.
Pride in pacifism
Japan’s post-war democratic experiment has, to some extent, been a unique species. Few democracies can claim to boast an entirely pacifist foreign policy. Consider, for example, the US, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the UK, France, South Korea, Austria, Canada, Greece and Norway. Or take Sweden, which is consistently singled out for selling arms to potentially dangerous states. All of these democracies manufacture and sell firearms, bombs, missiles or other instruments of war.
Japan has been the odd democracy out. Until now. So the issue Abe’s government now faces is this: how can it claim to be representative given that the majority of electors in Japan do not want the guilt of bloodstained hands? Unlike their international counterparts, the people of Japan have made their views clear: they want their democracy to remain the odd one out.
Will the Abe government, which has overridden the popular will by rushing through deeply unpopular security legislation, listen to the people and change its course? Should it?
Jean-Peal Gagnon is an assistant professor in politics at University of Canberra. Anthea McCarthy-Jones is an assistant professor in international relations at University of Canberra. Mark Chou is an associate professor of politics at Australian Catholic University.