By John Feffer* | July 12, 2014
[Originally published in The Hankyoreh]
Suicide is not unusual in Japan. In fact, the country has one of the top ten suicide rates in the world. But the recent attempt by a man to commit suicide by self-immolation in the busy shopping district of Shinjuku in Tokyo was a startling departure from the norm. It’s been a long time since someone tried to commit suicide in Japan to make a political point.
The middle-aged man sat cross-legged on a girder outside the subway station in Shinjuku. After using a loudspeaker to address the people below, he doused himself with flammable liquid and lit himself on fire. Firefighters immediately put out the flames and rushed him to the hospital. It appears that the man will survive.
The protestor was speaking out against moves by the government of Shinzo Abe to provide Japan with a more aggressive military. This anti-militarist message resonates with a large portion of the Japanese population. Since World War II, the country has adhered to a “peace constitution.” In the most famous clause of that constitution, Article 9, Japan renounces the waging of war as a means of resolving international disputes.
But Japanese conservatives like Abe have long felt that Article 9 prevents the country from living up to its treaty obligations and protecting the homeland from potential aggression. They want Japan to have a “normal” military that can fight like any other army. More extreme nationalists would like to see Japanese armed forces secure disputed territories such as the islands currently claimed by South Korea, China, and Russia. Some even talk about acquiring nuclear weapons.
It’s not easy, however, to change Japan’s constitution. Abe lacks the supermajority in the Diet to remove Article 9. So he is simply changing Japanese foreign policy by Cabinet resolution – in other words, by fiat. It’s a trick favored by many of his predecessors. This disingenuous step-by-step approach has, over the years, gradually expanded the mandate and functions of the Japanese military. In this way, Japan has been able to export weapons, join in missile defense projects, and even send troops to Iraq (albeit only for humanitarian missions).
Now Abe is invoking the Japanese right to collective self-defense. His recent Cabinet resolution will allow Japanese forces to fight on the side of its allies – principally the United States – in any conflict, even if Japan itself is not being attacked. If this provision had been in place after 2001, Japan could have sent actual combat units to Afghanistan or Iraq. Today, if a conflict were to break out between China and the United States, Japan would necessarily be drawn into it.
It’s not entirely clear, however, whether the average Japanese person would support the implementation of such a “right.” Pacifism runs deep in Japanese society. According to recent polls, 58 percent of Japanese oppose Abe’s latest reform.
Abe’s move and the rising protests against it come at the same time that the Japanese government is moving ahead with its plan to build a facility to replace the aging Futenma Marine Air Force basein Okinawa. After enormous pressure by Tokyo and Washington, Okinawan Governor HirokazuNakaima switched his position. Originally insisting on the construction of the new base somewhere outside of Okinawa, Nakaima approved the plan to build the base at Henoko, in the north of the island.
This base plan is not popular in Okinawa. Approximately three-quarters of the population oppose turning Henoko and its surrounding waters into a lily pad for U.S. Marines. In February, voters in the city of Nago – which administers Henoko – reelected Susumu Inamine as mayor, at least in part because of his fierce determination to oppose base construction.
This month the Japanese government is expected to begin its ocean surveying around Henoko. It has already expanded the restricted zone around the proposed facility, ostensibly to prevent fishing in the area but more likely to prevent protestors from interfering with the survey and later with the construction. But anti-base activists are nevertheless planning to ramp up their activities to prevent this new base from moving forward.
The conservatives in Tokyo think that they have the best opportunity in years to push through their agenda. The United States is still promoting its Pacific pivot. China has become more assertive in its maritime claims. North Korea continues to fire off missiles. Japanese conservatives hope to use fear to justify a significant expansion of Japan’s military might.
But what the Japanese government is doing – to circumvent the Japanese constitution in the first case and the wishes of the Okinawan people in the second – is not popular. It’s also important to emphasize that Japan is not about to return to its militarist past, however much some ultranationalists would like to see that happen.
Nevertheless, Japan’s flexing of its muscles, however modest at the beginning, will have a ripple effect throughout the region. A maritime confrontation with China is not out of the question. A conflict might even happen with Korea over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands. The Obama administration has been enthusiastic about Abe’s reforms because now Tokyo can be a more vigorous partner in checking China. Indeed, a key part of the Pacific pivot is getting allies in the region to shoulder more of the burden of maintaining the balance of power in the region.
But Abe’s plan of stealth militarization is not inevitable. Japan’s “peace constitution” is still in place. If it can be reinterpreted out of existence, it can certainly be reinterpreted back into existence – by the Japanese people themselves along with everyone else
*John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus and a KPI Advisor