Today, Australian Prime Minister Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Abe meet in Canberra, and Prime Minister Abe presents an address to the Australian parliament. This is a historic occasion, and will be remembered as a pivotal point in Australia-Japan relations.
In their discussions, the two leaders are highlighting the crucial economic and security ties that bind Australia and Japan together, and emphasizing the vital role that both countries play as leading democracies in the Asia-Pacific region.
Like many others who have spent much of their lives trying to further the relationship between Japan and Australia, I applaud these sentiments, but ask: what sort of Australia-Japan relationship is being built in Canberra today, in whose name, and in whose interests?
An ABC news headline from 3 July 2014 reads, “Australia says it supports revision of Japanese constitution”. According to the first sentence of the article that follows, “Australia has welcomed Japan’s announcement to allow its military to fight overseas, saying it will enable Japan to further contribute to international peace and stability”.
There are two things wrong with this article. First, Japan has not revised its constitution. Rather, the Japanese government has issued a cabinet decision stating that it will “reinterpret” Article Nine of the constitution to mean something totally incompatible with the actual wording of the constitutional text. Second, it is not “Australia”, but rather an anonymous spokesperson from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who has welcomed the change.
A recent newspaper article by two respected ANU academics welcomes Japan’s constitutional change, while suggesting that the whole issue is “much ado about nothing”; for, as the article goes on to mention in passing, “the Japanese cabinet is entitled to modify its interpretation of Article 9 in light of the changing security environment the country faces”.
This casual statement is emblematic of the state of debate in Australia and Japan today, and is an alarming indication of how much we have forgotten and devalued the fundamental principles of constitutional democracy. In the succinct words of Wikipedia, these are that “the legislature makes the laws; the executive put the laws into operation; and the judiciary interprets the laws. The doctrine of the separation of powers is often assumed to be one of the cornerstones of fair government”. Or, as the Supreme Court of Hawaii put it in a major judgment “the courts, not the legislature, are the ultimate interpreters of the constitution”.
In the case of Japan, it is the executive that has pushed through the reinterpretation of the constitution, after extensive backdoor political horsetrading but no public consultation, and in the teeth of majority opposition from public opinion. If the Japanese cabinet can interpret Article Nine to mean the opposite of what it says, there is nothing to stop them doing exactly the same with the articles that protect basic human rights, sexual equality, freedom of speech etc.
Prime Minister Abbott and his government welcome this change because they believe it to be in Australia’s “national interest” (as defined by Abbott’s executive). But their lack of concern for democratic procedure in Japan also reflects the fact that the Abbott government has an equally cavalier approach to the fundamental principles of democracy: in particular to the principle that democratic governments do not take important actions which influence domestic society and foreign relations without informing parliament and the electorate.
Recent infringements of international law by the Abbott government in relation to asylum seekers have earned Australia the condemnation of global media and major international human rights organizations, and, worse still, have been carried out under a veil of secrecy which violates every principle of fair and open government.
These recent actions in Japan and Australia are not only undermining the precious democratic systems of both countries, but are also inflaming already rapidly deteriorating international relations in our region, and deepening social divisions within both countries.
Here in Australia, colleagues and I have found ourselves hosting an increasing number of Japanese visitors and second or third generation Korean denizens of Japan who no longer feel comfortable living in the country of their birth. Meanwhile, Australian media hysteria about asylum seekers heightens xenophobic stereotypes and stirs ghosts of Australian racism which have never been laid to rest, making life increasingly uncomfortable for many Australian citizens and residents.
It is true that, despite all these rapidly worsening problems, Australia and Japan remain among the most democratic countries in our region. This makes it easy for us to shrug our shoulders and dismiss the issues discussed here as “much ado about nothing”. After all, things are so much worse in so many other countries. But I would argue that it is precisely because Australia and Japan are among the leading democracies of our region that we should care profoundly about steps by our governments that usurp and undermine fundamental democratic rights.
Prime Minister Abe’s most recent election campaign was backed by a poster, displayed across the length and breadth of Japan, which depicted Abe and ruling party Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba, with the words “we are taking back Japan” (Nihon o torimodosu). Every time I saw one of those posters, I wondered who that small word “we” refered to. When I see Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Abbott cementing their relationship, I wonder which “we” they are speaking of and for.
Respect for the principles of democracy is vital to a healthy future relationship between Australia and Japan. Good relations between the countries of our region, including good relations between Japan and its neighbours and between Australia and it neighbours, are fundamental to the interests of the people of Australia and Japan. A relationship between Japan and Australia that truly values human rights and democracy is possible. Non-governmental actions between citizens, grassroots group, scholars, educators and others are essential to building that relationship.
It is time for ordinary Japanese, Australians and other concerned about our two countries’ relationship to make their voices heard, to share their concerns and to begin, in whatever ways we can, to take back the relationship between Australia and Japan.
Tessa Morris-Suzuki is an Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific Japanese history professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow.