Forgetting history

Print edition : August 21, 2015

At an anti-government rally in Tokyo on July 24. Opinion polls conducted in July showed that more than 80 per cent of the Japanese public remains opposed to the Shinzo Abe government's tinkering with the country's pacifist Constitution. Photo: Thomas Peter/REUTERS

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the plenary session of the upper House of the parliament in Tokyo on July 27, which started debating controversial security Bills that would expand the remit of the country's armed forces. Photo: Toru YAMANAKA/AFP

January 19, 1960: U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower watches as Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi signs a security treaty between the two countries at the White House. The protests in Japan against this treaty forced Kishi to leave office. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

USS Kitty Hawk in the Bay of Bengal in September 2007 during a multinational military exercise involving the naval forces of the U.S., Japan, India, Australia and Singapore. Photo: US NAVY/ MCS Stephen W. Rowe/ AFP

Despite the opposition he faces inside and outside the parliament, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems determined to rewrite Japan’s pacifist Constitution and revive its military traditions.

In the third week of July, the conservative government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took another decisive step towards abandoning the post-War pacifist Constitution of Japan. Using the brute majority in the House of Representatives, the lower House of Japan’s parliament, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) passed a raft of laws that will allow the deployment of Japanese troops on foreign soil. The government has sought to justify its move on the basis of the “collective security” agreement it has with the United States and a few other countries. In April this year, Abe signed an agreement with U.S. President Barack Obama that will allow the participation of Japanese troops in joint military actions on foreign soil. Japan and China are currently involved in an acrimonious territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands situated near the Chinese coastline.

Speaking after the passage of the laws, Abe said that the security situation around the country was getting tougher and that the laws were “vital to protect the lives of Japanese people and prevent war”. Since returning to power in 2013, Abe has been focussing his energies on the rewriting of the Constitution and the revival of Japan’s military power. His government has not taken kindly to the rise of China as a global power. Relations between the two countries have gone steadily downhill since he took office. Abe has visited many Asian capitals, including New Delhi, in his ongoing efforts to build an anti-China military coalition, with the avid backing of the U.S. At the G7 summit in June, Abe played a key role in including a clause in the communique that was critical of China’s activities in the South China Sea.

Through its “pivot to the East” policy, the Obama administration is encouraging its close allies such as Japan to collaborate with it in the military build-up in the region. China has been alleging that the U.S. is trying to strengthen its military alliance in the region to ratchet up pressure in the South China Sea where China is involved in territorial disputes with other countries. In recent months, Japanese spy planes have been flying near territory China has claimed, mirroring the actions of the U.S. Air Force since the beginning of the year. The commander of the Japanese Navy, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, while on a visit to Washington in July, said that there were discussions about deploying Japanese ships to patrol the South China Sea.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution pledges that the country will never wage war and for that matter prohibits the maintaining of land, sea and air forces that are capable of waging war. After being put on the back burner by the Abe government, Article 9 now seems to be on the verge of being formally scrapped. Japanese military spending in the next five years will exceed $232 billion. On the shopping list are anti-missile destroyers, submarines and U.S. fighter planes. Japan is beefing up security relations with Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines and India. Japan has been keen to draw India into its web of military alliances. The last multilateral military exercises involving Japan, the U.S., Australia, Singapore and India were held eight years ago. China at the time had conveyed its strong displeasure to India for participating in what it considered blatant military muscle flexing against it in the Indian Ocean region. Now there are reports that India is once again preparing to participate in multilateral “Malabar” naval exercises later in the year in the Bay of Bengal, involving the navies of India, Japan and the U.S.

Washington has welcomed the Abe government’s latest moves. The spokesman for the U.S. State Department said that Washington welcomed Tokyo’s “ongoing efforts to strengthen the alliance and play a more active role in regional and international security activities”. In April last year, Abe had set 2020 as the target date to transform Japan into a leading military power. He has promised a wholesale revision of the Japanese Constitution by the time the Olympic Games are held in the country that year. “By 2020, I think Japan will have completely restored its status and been making great contributions to peace and stability in the region and the world,” he pledged last year.

The new laws were passed despite strong protests from the opposition benches. Unruly scenes were witnessed in the parliament as the government steamrolled the Bills through the security committee of the lower House. The parliament has been debating them for several months. There has been some dissent within the LDP too. A former LDP secretary general, Makoto Koga, had said in a public lecture that “changing a constitutional interpretation through a Cabinet decision is a patchwork measure…. One mistake and we could be involved in a war.” Constitutional scholars testified in the parliament that the recently passed laws violated the Constitution. According to reports in the Japanese media, 90 per cent of Japan’s constitutional experts view the laws as a clear violation of the pacifist Constitution. Abe’s government has also passed tough laws to curb the media. Prominent newspaper and television personalities holding pacifist views have been sidelined by their employers.

The new laws are expected to be comfortably passed in the House of Councillors, the upper House of the parliament, where the LDP and its allies enjoy a comfortable majority. Katsuya Okada, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the main opposition party, warned his countrymen about the dangers posed by the new laws. “It is a mistake to set aside constitutional interpretations built up by government over a period of 70 years without sufficient public understanding and debate,” he said. The opposition boycotted the vote in the parliament and have vowed to keep on protesting in the streets. To some extent, the DPJ has been responsible for the rise in military tensions in the region. It was the DPJ government that took the unprecedented step of “nationalising” the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and raising the ante in the stand-off with China.

The passing of the Bills was also met with strong protests outside the parliament. More than 100,000 people protested outside the parliament building after the laws were pushed through, carrying placards and banners with slogans calling for the scrapping of the war Bills and the stopping of Abe’s recklessness. Opinion polls conducted in July showed that more than 80 per cent of the Japanese public remains opposed to the Abe government’s tinkering with the Constitution. An opinion survey conducted by Kyodo, Japan’s national news agency, in the third week of July, put the government’s popularity at 37 per cent, the lowest since it was elected in 2012.

There are indications that the protests could spread across the country as occurred in 1960 during the time of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather. Huge protests against the U.S.-Japan security treaty that Kishi had initialled rocked Tokyo and other cities. The protests forced Kishi to leave office, but Japan became deeply embedded militarily with the U.S. Kishi, however, could not fulfil his cherished dream of overhauling Japan’s Constitution. His grandson seems well on his way to doing so. Kishi was imprisoned briefly by the U.S. occupation forces for alleged war crimes committed in China during the Second World War.

Japanese opposition leaders fear that Abe’s policies could lead the country into another military adventure with devastating consequences. The Japanese nation has not yet forgotten the consequences of the Second World War. But Abe refuses to acknowledge the lessons of history. For that matter, he has been at the forefront of the right wing’s move to rewrite school history textbooks. He has been reluctant to acknowledge the horrific war crimes the Japanese Imperial Army committed in Asia during the War. To the chagrin of even Japan’s military allies such as South Korea, the Japanese Prime Minister has frequently visited Yasukuni Shrine, where the ashes of some of Japan’s most notorious war criminals are interred.

The Japanese film-maker Hayao Miyazaki has been among the prominent intellectuals speaking out against Abe’s militaristic moves. “Prime Minister Abe seems to want to be remembered in history as the man who revised the Constitution and remilitarised Japan. That is despicable,” the veteran film-maker and internationally acclaimed animator told journalists.

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, speaking after the passing of the militaristic laws in the House of Representatives, declared that it was fully justified to ask whether Japan was giving up its “defence-oriented policies”. This year, China will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Chinese territory from Japanese occupation forces. Many Japanese have called on the Abe government to issue a formal apology for the widespread atrocities and pogroms the Imperial Army committed in China. “We solemnly urge the Japanese side to draw hard lessons from history—and refrain from jeopardising China’s sovereignty and security interests or crippling regional peace and security,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman demanded.

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