Japan’s March Towards Militarism


Events in Japan have been worrying to many outside observers, in particular since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese Prime Minister in seven years to visit the now internationally infamous Yasukuni shrine late last December. The visit  was followed with predictable vilification by the governments of China and Korea, but the Japanese population was stunned by the swift condemnation by other important international partners, including the United States, the European Union, and Russia.

The Yasukuni issue is an emotive one in Japan, one which does not lend itself to simplistic right vs left divisions (for example Japanese big business, mindful of the need to maintain good relations with its international trading partners, has been largely critical of Abe’s visit.) Nevertheless, Yasukuni is really a sideshow: almost a distraction from the truly alarming moves that the current government has been taking on a march towards militarism, which include the government’s stated goal to scrap the pacifist Article 9 of the Constitution.

Japan: the Next Merchant of Death

The famed Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution states “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the national and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”. Though Japan maintains a military euphemistically known as the Self Defence Force, the pacifist intentions of the article are clear, and it has acted as an overarching framework (and constraint) for all Japanese diplomacy since the end of World War II. It has also been a constant eyesore for the conservative politicians of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has advocated for the revision of this article since the party’s forming in 1955.

The lion’s share of attention, both domestically and abroad, to the constitutional debate in Japan has focused on the efforts of successive governments to revise this Article, so as to allow the establishment of a ‘proper’ military and the exercise of collective self-defence, currently forbidden under the official interpretation of the Constitution. The government has also created controversy by announcing in late 2013 that it would ease its strict restrictions on weapons exports, opening the door to joint weapons development and ushering in a potential role for Japan as one of the next leading global merchants of death (unlike Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, Japanese big business is very excited about this move, and indeed, has been pushing for it for years). In late February, it came to light that, as part of the easing of its restrictions, the government intends to allow the export of weapons to countries that are currently party to a conflict. It appears that this move is to pave way in joining the United States in exporting weapons to Israel – weapons that could be used in oppressing the Palestinian people, laying siege to Gaza, or attacking Iran or Lebanon.

The End of Human Rights in Japan?

More alarming than these developments are the current government’s plans for revising other sections of the Constitution, which go far beyond Article 9 (and the scant media attention given to these plans within the mainstream media in Japan). A draft revised Constitution published by the LDP would have grave implications for human rights in Japan, and could be a throwback to the arbitrary ‘security’ powers of the military government in the 1930s and 40s, when suspected political opponents were detained and tortured at will.

The draft revised Constitution published in April 2012 is straight out of a dictator’s handbook. It includes a sweeping restriction on fundamental rights, stating that the rights of the people to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” could be legitimately restrained by “public interest and public order”. The right to freedom of expression and assembly are also subjected to this new “public interest” restriction – a particularly worrying development given the new Designated Secrets Act which was rammed through parliament in December above howls of national and international protest. This Act dictates sweeping categories of information that can be designated secret at the whim of the government, together with extremely high penalties for leaking secrets (e.g. ten years imprisonment). In response to the outcry, the PM announced at the eleventh hour the creation of a panel of independent experts that would advise on criteria for designation. The panel met for the first time in January, and the minutes are – you guessed it – secret.

The current Constitution already includes a restriction on rights in the name of “public welfare”, but this has been widely interpreted to mean that the executive has to show that any restriction is necessary (and proportionate) for the protection of other rights. Unhappy with this primacy of human rights protection, the LDP argues lamely in the FAQ issued together with the draft that “public interest” is somehow a more concrete concept that transcends trivial questions of individual rights. Clearly, the LDP believes that the executive should be entrusted with defining the “public interest” in each specific case – a sure blank check for arbitrary actions.  In his personal blog, Shigeru Ishiba, the Chief Whip of the LDP, branded peaceful protesters against the Designated Secrets Act as “terrorists” – an ominous sign of how the government plans to interpret the “public interest” criterion.

The current Constitution prohibits torture or cruel punishments “under any circumstances”. In the LDP’s draft, the phrase “under any circumstances” is gone without a trace – suggesting that the government believes, in fragrant violation of international law, that torture could be justified under some circumstances. This is particularly grave given that rampant and systemic ill treatment in detention facilities, in particular during pre-trial detention, is one of the longest standing human rights abuses in Japan. This problem has been documented extensively by international and Japanese NGOs and the Japanese Bar Association. The problems were reiterated recently in 2013 by the UN Committee against Torture, which listed extensive human rights problems related to the current system of pretrial detention. The comments of the UN Committee were dismissed by Abe, who stated that they were not legally binding.  None of this bodes well for the future of human rights in Japan.

Educational Reform – All Hail the Flag

The ease of the government to push forward these revisions is an open question, since changes to the Constitution require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament and majority support in a referendum. On the other hand, dramatically changing the face of Japanese education has been much easier.

Education in Japan from the period of industrialisation through to the end of the war was geared predominantly towards producing obedient servants of the Emperor and, by extension, the military. All the older generation remember reciting the Emperor’s Rescript on Education, which instructed the Emperor’s subjects to “offer [themselves] courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne”. They also learned grammar through rote citations of saita saita sakura ga saita, susume susume heitai susume (“the cherry blossoms bloom, onward the solders advance”).

Japanese post-war education was framed with the explicit goal of building democratic values and preventing the kind of nationalistic education of the past. Unsurprisingly, the LDP is unhappy with this, arguing that schools have promoted a “self-flogging” view of the country’s culture and modern history. Successive conservative governments have made attempts to exert more political control over the powerful local education councils (who decide, inter alia, which of the approved textbooks to use in the district) and to break the staunchly leftist national teacher’s union.

In 1999 the parliament adopted a law requiring that all state schools display the flag at commencement ceremonies, and that all teachers (though not necessarily students) stand and sing the anthem – both extremely controversial in the Japanese context because of their close connection with militarism. State school teachers are regularly disciplined because of their refusal to stand during the anthem and even for allegedly only mouthing the lyrics, as thought police of the school administration have been instructed to stand by teachers and listen with ears pricked, to ascertain whether they are truly singing.

Numerous court cases arguing the unconstitutionality of these punishments (and of the law itself) have gone nowhere, with the Supreme Court stating that standing for and singing the anthem was merely “customary and ceremonial”. In one case, seven secondary school teachers in Tokyo who refused to stand were each docked a month’s pay for this expression of their conscience. In September 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated this punishment as being disproportionate, after which the municipality cynically issued formal warnings to the group to ensure their employment records were marred. And if the government has its way with constitutional reform, the people would be required to “respect the national flag and the anthem” – presumably legal justification for demanding more shows of loyalty.

Education as a Tool for Nationalism

In 2005, amendments were made to the Educational Basic Law adding “respect for tradition and culture” and “love of our country and of the homeland” as one of the objectives of education. In an ominous move seemingly aimed at reintroducing conscription, the LDP’s draft revised constitution also dictates that the people must “proactively defend the nation and the homeland with pride and spirit”. Very similar language also features in the new national security strategy adopted in December 2013; the strategy states “it is vital that each citizen understands that national security is not a distant issue … the government will take measures to foster love of our country and of the homeland”.  Clearly, educational reforms are being undertaken with these national security objectives in mind.

Sure enough, in November 2013, the Education Minister announced a plan for new guidelines requiring textbooks to be sufficiently “patriotic” for approval. An indication as to the metric of patriotism, the guidelines also state that textbooks should reflect the government position on particular issues, an obviously worrying step given the many efforts of successive governments in whitewashing wartime atrocities in school textbooks.

Equally sinister is the promotion of the ethics course within the curriculum. Currently all Japanese schoolchildren have a course on ethics throughout their mandatory schooling, but this is somewhat ill defined, with much left up to individual teachers. In late December 2013, a government appointed panel recommended that ethics be promoted to a formal subject within the curriculum. Though the panel stated that ethics should continue to be an unmarked course (i.e. students would not be marked), this change means that there will be a national outline of its content and a textbook. With the new requirements for promotion of patriotism through textbooks, naturally there are serious concerns that the new ethics course will become nationalist indoctrination.

The Tokyo of 2020

These debates are longstanding ones, and obviously predate Abe’s premiership. The many elements at play include the stagnation of Japan’s economy since the burst of the “bubble” in 1991, neoliberal reforms pushed forward since the 1990s and the consequential explosion in numbers of un- and under-employed youth (many of whom have proven susceptible to populist propaganda of all sorts), and the perceived threat from a politically and economically rising China.

It would be foolish to say that the current trends are all Abe’s fault. Nevertheless, it is also true that Abe is personally committed to these right wing reforms in a way that few other Prime Ministers have been, and that he has managed to present them as a cure to the country’s ills. History shows that a public constantly under threat of losing their paycheque and their status in the social hierarchy, as is currently the case with the majority of Japanese, provides fertile ground for fascism.

One – perhaps the only one – of Abe’s diplomatic victories has been the choosing of Tokyo as the site for the summer Olympics in 2020 (a feat achieved only with Abe’s disingenuous assurances to the selection committee that the ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukushima was “under control”). The government is doing its best to draw parallels with the first time Tokyo held the Olympic games in 1964, when a confident nation boasted its technological achievements and went on to become one of the global economic powerhouses. In fact, the Olympics had also been scheduled for Tokyo in 1940, but were cancelled amongst growing international opprobrium against Japanese militarism and its war in China. If Abe has his way, the Tokyo of 2020 may very well resemble that of 1940, rather than 1964. In many aspects, it already does.

Saul Takahashi is a Japanese human rights lawyer and activist who started his career with Amnesty International in Tokyo. He received his LLM from Essex University, and is currently working in Occupied Palestine. Takahashi is the editor of Human Rights, Human Security and State Security: the Intersection, which will be published by Praeger Security International in 2014.

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