Imperial dilemma

Print edition : September 16, 2016

Pedestrians watch a screen broadcasting Emperor Akihito's address to the people on August 8, in Tokyo. Photo: Yuya Shino/Bloomberg

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery for unknown war victims on the 71st anniversary of Japan's surrender in the Second World War, in Tokyo on August 15. He sent a ritual donation to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine but avoided visiting it, in an apparent nod to China and South Korea. Photo: JIJI PRESS/AFP

Tomami Inada, the new Defence Minister, inspecting a guard of honour on her first day in office on August 4. Photo: Shuji Kajiyama/AP

There seems to be a rift between the politics of Japan’s ruling dispensation and its imperial family.

JAPAN’S PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE AND the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have consolidated their political gains after the latest round of elections to the Upper House of the Diet, held in the third week of July. The LDP will now have a brute majority in both the Lower and Upper Houses, which will help the government to pass controversial legislation relating to the Constitution and other important issues. Though the Upper House is not as powerful as the Lower House, it has the power to block legislation.

Abe was voted back to power for a second consecutive term on his pledge to revive the economy. However, it was under his watch that China overtook Japan as the world’s second biggest economy. Abe’s economic policies, “Abenomics”, have resulted in a 4 per cent growth, and the stock market has made a recovery of sorts. But it has not lifted Japan out of recession. To spur economic growth, the Prime Minister has to take some tough decisions before the year ends. Many of these measures could prove to be unpopular.

Abe has indicated that he will raise sales tax from the current 4 per cent to 8 per cent and cut the country’s 36 per cent corporate tax to trigger growth. He also wants Japan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) initiative of the Barack Obama administration. This economic grouping is a counter to the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative of the Chinese government. Almost all the countries in the region, barring Japan and India, have signed up for the ambitious OBOR project. In contrast, only 11 countries have indicated their willingness to sign up for the TPP.

Controversial moves

But the most controversial decisions that are envisaged by the Abe administration in the immediate future is the revision of Japan’s pacifist Constitution and the restarting of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Abe wants language relating to restrictions on the use of force to resolve conflicts to be removed from the Constitution. Many of the reactors were shut down after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Public opinion remains steadfast in its opposition to the revision of Japan’s pacifist Constitution and to the country’s excessive dependence on nuclear energy.

The Cabinet reshuffle soon after the upper house elections provides a clear indication of the rightward nationalist shift that is under way in Japanese politics. The most important appointment was that of Tomomi Inada as Defence Minister. Tomomi Inada, an outspoken nationalist, is a leading member of the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) consisting of right-wing members of parliament who are unapologetic about Japan’s wartime history and atrocities. The parliamentary group has been demanding the revision of the Constitution for years now, along with the rewriting of Japanese wartime history. The Nippon Kaigi upholds the myth that Japan was on a mission to liberate Asia from the yoke of European colonialism. Tomomi Inada is a regular visitor to the Yasukuni shrine, which honours the Japanese war dead. She has gone to the extent of denying that the Nanjing massacre, in which over 300,000 Chinese were brutally executed, took place. Visits to the Yasukuni shrine by Abe and other leaders have infuriated the public in South Korea and China.

Politics around pacifism

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution forbids Japan to wage war or maintain an army for the purpose of conducting a war. The recent acknowledgment by United States Vice President Joseph Biden that the Japanese Constitution was actually drafted by the U.S. occupation forces will be used by the nationalists who dominate the LDP to justify their demands. Abe and his supporters want to remove the last vestiges of the U.S. occupation so that Japan can once again chart a course to regain the big power status that it lost after the Second World War. Biden was reacting to the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s statement that the U.S. should stop subsidising Japan’s military expenditure and give it the option of acquiring nuclear weapons to protect itself from threats from countries like China and North Korea.

Successive Japanese Prime Ministers since the 1960s have ensured that the country’s armed forces under the nomenclature of “Self Defence Forces” have emerged as one of the strongest and best equipped military forces in Asia. Since the beginning of the last decade, the Japanese army has been engaged in “peacekeeping” missions abroad, mainly on behalf of the U.S. Last year, the Abe government passed legislation allowing the Japanese army to participate in wars, invoking the rationale of “collective self-defence”. The army will be renamed the National Defence Force. The U.S. has permanent military bases in Japan, and both countries are bound together by military treaties that were signed after the country’s surrender in 1945. The Abe government has further enhanced the already strong military relations by giving more basing rights to the Americans and agreeing to make the U.S. responsible for framing regional policies to protect Japanese security interests.

During his recent visit to Japan, Obama was full of praise for the U.S.-Japanese alliance, claiming that it was responsible for keeping the peace in the region. He conveniently forgot to mention the wars the U.S. had fought in the region, including major ones in Korea and Vietnam. Obama, who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, did not also think it worthwhile to apologise to the Japanese people for the nuclear holocaust in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was the first U.S. President to visit Hiroshima, and many Americans thought that it was an opportune time to say sorry.

Emperor unhappy

Many prominent Japanese have questioned Abe’s single-minded quest to dump the pacifist Constitution. Emperor Akihito, who made a rare televised address to the people on August 8, is among those who seem unhappy about the course Japanese politics is taking. It is only on very rare occasions that the Emperor addresses his people. His father, Emperor Hirohito, had done so to announce Japan’s surrender to the Allied powers in 1945. This is the second time that the Japanese Emperor has spoken directly to the people. There has been much speculation in Japan for some time now that the Emperor wishes to abdicate. He is 82 years old and is a cancer survivor. He indicated in his speech that given the state of his health he found it difficult to cope with his wide-ranging duties. Akihito said that ever since he ascended the Chrysanthemum throne, he had thought deeply about what is the “desirable role for the Emperor, who is designated to be the symbol of the state by the Japanese Constitution”.

After the restoration of the Meiji dynasty in 1868, the Emperor played a key role in Japanese history. But after the new Constitution came into force following the Second World War, the Emperor was reduced to the status of “a symbol of state”. The Americans had wanted to use the monarchy to lend credibility to their seven-year occupation of the country. Unlike in Germany, the Americans did not entirely purge all those responsible for Japanese militarism and war crimes. General Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. military adviser in Japan who had a big role to play in the drafting of the Constitution, had said that the Japanese, unlike the Germans, were “not a mature race”.

Emperor Hirohito, according to most historians, was supportive of Japan’s imperial goals. But Emperor Akihito, from the beginning of his tenure, has shown genuine remorse for the MANY atrocities Japan committed during the occupation of the Korean peninsula and China in the first half of the 20th century. Under Akihito, the Japanese monarchy became more akin to European monarchies, wedded strongly to constitutional democracy.

Rift between emperor and premier

According to many Japanese commentators, Akihito in his speech was signalling to the Abe government that he was against the overhaul of the current Constitution. Abe has indicated that the new Constitution that he envisages will change the designation of the Emperor’s role from “symbol of state” to “head of state”. The draft Constitution proposed by the LDP also wants to restore the “semi divine” status that the Emperor enjoyed in the past. Under the present constitution, the Emperor is obliged to “respect and uphold the constitution”. The Abe government wants to remove this stipulation.

Akihito’s speech and his implicit desire to abdicate are being viewed as signs of the imperial household’s disillusionment with Abe’s plan to once again militarise Japan. “Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war are never repeated,” the Emperor said last year in a speech to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender. The Crown Prince, Naruhito, has been even more forthright in his views. Speaking on the occasion of his birthday in February last year, he said that at a time when the memories of the World War were fading it was important “to look back humbly into the past and correctly pass on the tragic experiences and history” to the generation that had “no direct knowledge”. The Prince has been repeatedly praising the country’s “pacifist Constitution” in his speeches.

This could be one reason why Abe has been reluctant to allow the Emperor to step aside, despite the Japanese public’s overwhelming support for the Emperor’s wish to be fulfilled. In a recent opinion poll, 85 per cent of the respondents said that they favoured the amendment of the Imperial Household Law to permit the Emperor to retire. Many people in Japan hope that Akihito’s unhappiness with the government’s proposed move to politicise the Emperor’s role and drop the pacifist clause in the Constitution will influence the thinking of the Abe government. Even otherwise, the Abe government will first have to consider the issue of the Emperor’s resignation before it can go for a radical overhaul of the Constitution.

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