Japan, through the US looking glass
By Gavan McCormack
Japanese politics are characterized by two related paradoxes: first, that the
word "conservative" is usually applied to those who insist on the need to
remake Japan's postwar society, including its constitution, and who in other
words are actually radicals. Meanwhile, those who insist on "conserving"
Japan's postwar democratic institutions are labeled radicals or leftists; and
second, that those who most insist that Japan subordinate itself to the United
States describe themselves as "nationalists," while those who seek to
prioritize Japanese over United States' interests are suspected of being
somehow "un-Japanese". It all makes for confusion of the Alice in Wonderland
The thrust of the "reforms" undertaken by the Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe
governments between 2001 and 2007 was to bring Japan closer in line with the US
in both security and economic terms. On the former, in 2003 Japan's armed
forces were for the first time sent to a theatre of conflict at US behest and
"conservatives" since then have attached the highest priority
to trying to ensure that in the future Japan could do more by joining the US in
collective security actions (read: wars) as an East Asian Great Britain.
On the latter, the same "conservatives" have been intent on "liberalizing" the
Japanese economy by the removal of remaining obstacles to the penetration of US
and international capital. Currently, Japanese politics are in a state of
frozen immobility, the Fukuda government having lost control over the Upper
House but too fearful of annihilation at the polls to seek a mandate. Though
immobilized, however, Fukuda faces the same direction as his predecessors.
The fact that the US - the model for Japanese so-called conservatives on both
strategic and economic fronts - is engaged on a catastrophic and illegal war
that has virtually destroyed one major country and destabilized an entire
region, and that the excesses of its unregulated capitalism have plunged the
world economy into the greatest crisis in a generation, should give pause to
the proponents of such an agenda; but it seems not to.
The ink had scarcely dried on the 1946 constitution, incorporating the three
principles of pacifism, human rights, and political democracy, before the US
regretted it. Ever since then, it has been urging Japan to revise it. The brunt
of US attention is directed to Article 9, the so-called pacifist clause.
For half a century, Japanese "conservatives", intent on remaking the country to
American design, sought to revise (or neutralize) Article 9, but
constitutionalist forces were simply too strong, both in the Diet and in the
country at large. They had to be content with steadily watering it down by
widening and loosening the way it was interpreted. Now, however, that is no
As Japan wavered in 2007 over whether to renew its naval mission to the Indian
Ocean, withdrawing and then resending its fleet, and as the reorganization of
US military bases in Japan (agreed in 2005-2006), and Japan's conversion of its
armed forces from what former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld contemptuously
called a "boy scout" corps to a real fighting army, both proceed far too slowly
for the Bush administration, and American impatience mounted.
Only with explicit revision can Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) become a
regular national army (kokugun) able to fight alongside their American
allies. Prime minister Abe in May 2007 succeeded in railroading through the
Diet a law spelling out procedures for such a revision. In doing so, however,
he so alienated the voting public that he and his government were resoundingly
defeated at the Upper House election two months later. He had to resign shortly
afterwards. In another "Wonderland" kind of paradox, Japanese revisionists,
denouncing the existing constitution as an American imposition but insisting
above all on American priorities for revision, actually replicated the events
of six decades ago.
They now have a two-pronged strategy to meet American demands. In the short
term, they hope to secure passage of a permanent law to authorize the overseas
dispatch of Japanese Self-Defense Forces for "international cooperation
activities". That would obviate the current need for a "Special Measures Law"
(with attendant Diet debate and inevitable restrictions and conditions) every
time the SDF is to be sent on a mission.
For the longer term, 239 present and former members of the national parliament
joined on May 1 in a new organization - the Diet Members Alliance to Establish
a New Constitution. Unlike its predecessors, this association incorporates
prominent members of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. By thus
incorporating the opposition, the revision requirement of a two-thirds
parliamentary majority becomes feasible.
Outside the Diet, however, to the dismay of revisionists the more they attack
Article 9 the stronger public support for it becomes, reaching two-thirds in
the May 2008 Asahi opinion survey. The Article 9 Society, established in 2004
by prominent intellectuals and public figures, has now grown to have 7,000
branches nationwide, rivaling as a grassroots political mobilization the
anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Where revisionists are
ashamed by the constitution, the A9 Society members propagate it as a global
model. In May 2008 they filled to overflowing a vast convention center just
outside Tokyo under the slogan "The world has begun to choose Article 9".
As the "conservatives" revise their strategy for revision, they also display a
disturbing contempt for constitutional principle. In April, when the Nagoya
High Court found that the Koizumi and Abe governments had acted in breach of
the constitution by consenting to US demands to "show the flag" and put
Japanese "boots on the ground" in Iraq, and that therefore the Japanese troop
presence in Iraq was both unconstitutional and illegal, the prime minister,
chief cabinet secretary, minister of defense and the chief of staff of the Air
Self Defense Forces all dismissed it, insisting that such a judgment would have
no effect whatever on Japan's troop deployment. The rule of law and the
separation of powers seemed to them irrelevant.
Nor is constitutionalism just about matters of war and peace. The LDP
constitutional proposal would restore the Meiji Constitution's condition to
human rights clauses "so long as this does not interfere with public order (chitsujo)".
It would restore the emperor to the preamble, legitimize state involvement in
Yasukuni rituals and subtly erode local self-government, even striking out
Before any revision, already constitutional guarantees (in Article 25) of
"minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living" and (in Article 21) of
freedom of expression ring just as hollow for the irregularly employed,
freeters (people who work temporary part-time jobs), pacifists and critics of
society, as does Article 9's pledge that Japan will not possess "land, sea, or
air forces". As neo-liberal "reform" spreads and deepens, further
American-izing Japanese society, one in three Japanese workers is now exploited
and impoverished as an "irregular", constituting a new class of working poor
known as the "precariat", those living at the margins.
Shocking reports of the poor and the sick starving to death (one leaving a
pathetic note saying how he longed for a rice ball ... ) or being reduced to
homelessness or snatching sleep in all-night Internet cafes, are common.
Relative poverty levels (within the Organization for Economic Co-operation and
Development) are worse only in the United States. As for freedom of expression,
a recent court judgment affirmed the conviction (on trespass charges) of the
"Tachikawa Three" for inserting leaflets opposing the dispatch of Japanese
forces to Iraq into the letterboxes of defense force staff in 2003. For their
"crime" of protesting a troop dispatch that the Nagoya court has now found to
have been illegal and unconstitutional, they were arrested and held for 75 days
in detention - as if they were criminals.
Article 9 (war) and Article 25 (livelihood) may also be closely related. Late
in 2007, one desperate young freeter published an essay that encapsulated the
social despair that currently spreads, especially among young people. For him,
only the prospect of a war offered hope, since, he believed, only in a state of
war could there be the sort of upheaval of society from which betterment might
Gavan McCormack is a coordinator of Japan Focus. His Client
State: Japan in the American Embrace, was published in New York and London in
2007, and its publication in Japanese, Korean and Chinese translation is