A bespectacled, middle-aged man wearing a suit and tie climbed onto the steel rafters above a footbridge in Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku district and, using a megaphone, began to address passers-by below. According to witnesses, he spoke out against the Japanese Government’s impending decision to embrace the right of ‘collective defense’, which until now has been considered outside the bounds of the nation’s pacifist constitution.
After squatting on the steel girder speaking undisturbed for almost an hour, the man poured accelerant over his body and set himself alight.
In the aftermath of this horrific incident, Japanese police refused to release details about the protestor: his identity or his medical condition. Video evidence showing him falling, still fully alight, onto the walkway below suggests he would be unlikely to survive.
Despite street protests––the anonymous self-immolation being the most dramatic––and opinion polls showing more Japanese oppose than support the constitutional reinterpretation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has got his way in Cabinet. After months of coaxing––and, according to one source, a little blackmail––Abe has convinced his coalition partner, the New Komeito, to support the Liberal Democratic Party’s agenda.
But consider this. As of today, according to the Defense Ministry’s official website, ‘It is…not permissible [for Japan] to use the right [of collective defense], that is, to stop armed attack on another country with armed strength, although Japan is not under direct attack, since it exceeds the limit of use of armed strength as permitted under Article 9 of the Constitution’. Tomorrow, or very soon, this statement will disappear and be replaced by one staying the exact opposite.
How can this be possible?
Normally, in advanced and orderly nations, a constitution is interpreted over time by administrative dialogue, the passage of new laws and associated court rulings, all of which must be supportable with reference to the original text. Should a state come to adopt attitudes or values unsupported by its basic law, a formal process allows for constitutional amendment.
In Japan’s case, an amendment requires two-thirds’ support in a vote of the combined houses of the Diet and majority support in a referendum. This has never happened since the present constitution was adopted in 1947. Instead, there has been something of a tradition for the executive branch of government to determine what the constitution does and does not allow, and Japanese courts––particularly the Supreme Court––have tended to defer to the political judgement of the Cabinet of the day. Hence, although the constitution states that Japan will ‘never’ maintain land, sea and air forces, it has reacquired all three; and now, even though the constitution disavows the use of force to settle international disputes, the Cabinet is preparing the way to send military forces into a conflict regardless of whether a direct threat to Japan exists.
The move is supported by the United States (that already has strategic plans and weapons systems in place in and around Japan that cannot be effectively engaged unilaterally) and, most recently, was applauded by the government of the Philippines, which is embroiled, like Japan, in a territorial dispute with China. From such indications, we can see where this business may be headed.
While it is likely that dissent groups in Japan will challenge Abe’s policy shift in the courts, precedent suggests the Supreme Court will not accept a case until after a concrete situation has arisen, i.e. after Japan has forces engaged in a conflict. The Supreme Court’s timid track record on constitutional issues does not inspire confidence that it would defy a government in the midst of a security ‘crisis’.
Prime Minister Abe has argued the need for Japan to embrace ‘collective defense’ because of a changed security environment in the region. Though this assuredly relates to the rise of China and a wish to support a continued military engagement by the United States in East Asia, Abe has devoted more effort to explaining the policy shift to his coalition partners than to the general public––having earlier decided that the public could not be trusted to pass a constitutional amendment. Abe has assumed the right of ‘final authority’ on this fundamental issue. He considers the notion that constitutions exist, in part, to restrict state power to be an obsolete one.
The New Komeito is the political arm of the lay Nichiren Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai, which has traditionally opposed military entanglements, especially anything that would risk spilling Japanese blood abroad. With nine million loyal members, Soka Gakkai is a powerful force at the ballot box in a country where voting is not compulsory. The importance of the New Komeito for the LDP-led governing coalition is greater than the party’s Diet representation alone might suggest.
Abe’s tactics in winning over the New Komeito have mimicked the line of argument used by the Supreme Court when acquiescing with past constitutional ‘re-interpretations’. Abe began by stating a general principle that the New Komeito could not dispute: that, like any sovereign nation, Japan had an obligation to defend its citizens. In an increasingly unstable world, he went on to argue, this required Japan to co-operate with like-minded nations to secure the peace. When he suggested this could be achieved by sending military forces into foreign conflicts, Abe met resistance; but his response then was to ‘salami-slice’ the principle of ‘self defense’ into a myriad of scenarios until he found some that the New Komeito could live with. For instance, might not Japanese naval vessels participate in U.N.-sponsored minesweeping operations? ‘OK’ says New Komeito. ‘And what if…’ says Abe. And so it went: constitutional change achieved through a maze of hypothetical scenarios that can, and surely will, themselves be reinterpreted to fit whatever real-life situation emerges down the track. (The Supreme Court similarly has started out by avowing a motherhood principle before going on to find reasons for granting politically convenient exceptions to it.) Abe’s promise to the nation that the government would use only the ‘minimal force’ necessary for collective defense rests on nothing more solid than political expediency.
According to an Asahi group magazine, the LDP used other methods of persuasion on New Komeito, including a little blackmail. The party was reminded that its links to Soka Gakkai could also be considered a breach of the constitution––the guarantee of separation of church and state––if a ‘black letter’ interpretation of the law were applied. ‘So, lighten up, why don’t you?’
On the eve of the Cabinet meeting expected to adopt Abe’s resolution, official reports said that the lone protestor in Shinjuku who set himself alight was still alive. Most probably he was being kept on a life-support system until after the Cabinet decision, as a confirmed fatality would not sit well with the politicians in Kasumigaseki. His desperate act will be explained away as an isolated moment of madness. Who will even remember his still-undisclosed name in coming days? Forgotten, like the click of the keyboard that will consign the Defense Ministry’s soon-to-be obsolete web document to oblivion.
Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for eleven years for the ABC.