Walter Hamilton. Constitution Day in Japan

Last Sunday was Constitution Day in Japan. The national holiday memorializes the historic fact that, in 1947, for the first time Japanese embraced the principle that sovereignty resides with the people––not an emperor or a shogun, but the people.

This is no ordinary year for thinking about Japan’s post-war Constitution, given that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to fundamentally change it to provide his conservative government scope for military adventures. The basic law’s existing renunciation of the use of force to settle disputes he considers outmoded, because a neighbour like China is not similarly constrained.

So, then, pretty important to find out what people were saying and doing on Constitution Day, one would have thought. But which story led the TV news on the national broadcaster, NHK, that night? The new royal baby in Britain. What ran second? The heavyweight boxing contest in America. Third? Nepal. After which NHK faintly remembered to call home.

NHK (whose president has said publically that he would never want the broadcaster to get out of step with government policy) effectively turned its back on the main news story of the day. (Imagine if the ABC had failed to lead with the Anzac Day commemorations?)

Anyone aware of the recent trend towards government intimidation of journalists (foreign and domestic) in Japan and the suppression of information and distortion of news values by those beholden to Abe, on seeing this line-up, would have immediately guessed that the pro-Constitution rallies had been big.

And they were.

This is how the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun reported the story:

An unprecedented sense of crisis as well as feelings of optimism engulfed rallies and other events around Japan on May 3, the 68th anniversary of the enforcement of the postwar Constitution.

While some gatherings backed the ruling parties’ plan to propose the first-ever amendment to the U.S.-initiated Constitution, defenders came out in droves, saying the government must not “destroy” the pacifist Constitution.

At Rinko Park in Yokohama’s Minato-mirai district, about 30,000 people rallied in favor of preserving the Constitution, a turnout that surprised organizers of the event.

“It reflects a growing concern among citizens over the drive to change the Constitution,” a member of the event’s organizing committee said.

Last year, they sponsored two separate rallies in the Tokyo metropolitan area, but they attracted a total of just 5,000 people.

In his speech at the Yokohama event on Constitution Day, Nobel Prize-winning writer Kenzaburo Oe voiced his concerns over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on April 29, in which he pledged to strengthen cooperation between Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military.

“Japan is willing to become a hearty partner of the U.S.-led war around the world,” said Oe, 80. “It would be the last time for an old man like me to speak in front of this many people, but I am determined to continue working to defend the Constitution.”

Meanwhile in Tokyo, about 900 people attended a symposium in support of constitutional revision. The “Citizens Group for a Glorious Constitution” has been lobbying prefectural and municipal assemblies across the country to adopt statements calling for amendments to the Constitution.

It is really sad that we have been forced to preserve the Constitution that does not reflect our aesthetics,” declared journalist Yoshiko Sakurai, a leader of the group. “The United States has changed its global strategy to avoid conflicts that do not directly involve it, and given China’s militarily advances, we must change our attitudes first.”

Aesthetics?

Predictably Japan’s conservative press and NHK last week hailed Prime Minister’s Abe’s Congressional address, citing favourable reviews from the Obama administration and US media. “Repentance” for that troublesome-old-war-back-then was his price of entry into the Washington “smoking room”.

What most commentators overlooked, in their rush to compliment Abe, was the clever way he presented himself as a product of the American way of doing things: the boy who went to California as an exchange student and returned to Japan with an American “cheekiness” (nonsense, this grandson of a former prime minister was always cheeky) and a taste for baloney (I mean the Italian sausage). Through a plethora of folksy historical references, he made Japanese democracy and American democracy seem one and the same thing––which certainly they are not.

It was straight out of The West Wing; I could almost hear Toby and Sam summoning up the platitudes.

“History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone.” This is what Abe’s “repentance” boiled down to. It reminded me of the scene in The West Wing when “Jed” Bartlet informs his Republican opponent about the killing of a Secret Service agent in an armed robbery. The dull-witted politician shakes his head: “Crime. Boy, I don’t know.”

The issue, Mr. Abe, is not that we should try to undo history, an obvious impossibility. What we must be willing to do, however, is candidly interrogate history and embrace its lessons. So, how about starting by calling off your hired heavies who have turned NHK into a news wimp, and let your own electors learn how others really think about your plans for constitutional change.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for eleven years for the ABC.

 

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