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World & Nation

In Japan, protests intensify as vote nears on ‘war bills’

Protest at parliament building in Tokyo

Japanese police hold back demonstrators outside the parliament building in Tokyo protesting legislation that would expand the powers of the pacifist nation’s military.

(Kimimasa Mayama / European Pressphoto Agency)

On and off for weeks now, Kumiko Yokoi has been singing in front of Japan’s house of parliament and elsewhere.

The tune is “Love Me Tender,” but Yokoi has rewritten the lyrics to harangue Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his military policy and efforts to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist Constitution, among other things.

“When Abe was running for election, there wasn’t a word about security legislation. All we heard was ‘Abenomics, Abenomics,’” Yokoi, 71, a retiree from Tokyo’s suburbs, said as she stood in front of the legislature Monday evening. “Then, as soon as he’s elected … he’s … putting the ‘war bills’ out there. That’s just sneaky and underhanded. That’s not democracy.”

Yokoi is hardly alone. Since June, tens of thousands of demonstrators have repeatedly surrounded Japan’s parliament, or Diet, and gathered in cities across the nation to express their discontent with the proposed security legislation.

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Signs have read: “Abandon the war bill!” and “We won’t be fooled again. We won’t go to war again.” Organizers claimed 45,000 showed up at the Diet on Monday evening, although there was no independent confirmation of that figure.

Despite the protests, which have intensified since late August and become the largest since the anti-nuclear protests after the Fukushima meltdown in 2011, it appears the measures may be passed into law this week.

The legislation would substantially expand the powers of Japan’s military, which has been limited to self-defense activities under the constitution enacted in 1947 under U.S. supervision.

Article 9 of the constitution declares that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Since the end of World War II, the nation’s Self-Defense Forces have not been permitted to participate in overseas combat, even to come to the aid of the United States, a key military ally.

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But last year, citing rising tension between Japan and China among other issues, Abe said Japan ought to reinterpret the constitution to allow the country to defend its allies, particularly the United States, in the event of a conflict.

Abe’s ruling coalition named the measures the Peace and Security Preservation Legislation.

According to a poll published Monday by the Asahi newspaper, 29% of Japanese voters support the bills, and 54% oppose them. Surveys show a large majority of Japan’s legal scholars find the bills unconstitutional.

The passions provoked by the legislation are spurring some figures to abandon traditional boundaries of decorum. Shigeru Yamaguchi, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court, made an almost unprecedented foray into the political debate, coming out publicly against the bills.

The Mainichi newspaper reported that the Abe administration originally planned a final vote Monday, but agreed to have a public hearing Tuesday, which could delay a vote until the end of the week. The ruling coalition appears to have enough votes in both houses to turn the bills into law.

Nevertheless, what began as an opposition movement of the political left has expanded to include a wide swath of students, retirees, white-collar workers and celebrities such as film director Hayao Miyazaki and the model and performance artist known as Shelly.

Even the typically apolitical Japanese women’s magazines have run feature stories opposing military expansion.

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Some of the demonstrators say they fear allowing Japanese soldiers to fight abroad could drag the nation into a long conflict or put Japanese aid workers and citizens overseas in greater danger. Others who view the legislation as unconstitutional are worried about lasting damage to the system of checks and balances supposedly inherent to Japan’s political system.

Keishi Nunohara is among those with doubts about the bills.

“Japan has a been a pacifist nation for 70 years. Why change it now?” asked Nunohara, who runs a small construction business in northern Japan and came to Tokyo to join the protests this week.

Mothers Against War, a small group founded in July, has collected nearly 20,000 signatures protesting the bills. Its members have taken to holding up signs at rallies saying: “I won’t let [anyone] kill anyone’s children.”

“Everyone’s life is important. I think members of the Self-Defense Forces will quit. Maybe the only way to get troops will be a draft,” said Miki Tsukamoto, 43, the working mother of a 4-year-old boy. “And if not by force, there will be a sort of economic draft in which the less fortunate are lured by promise of economic rewards for service. We’re becoming like America. That’s frightening.”

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Demonstrators say they plan to keep up the pressure to the end. Aki Okuda, a founder of the group Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, told the evening paper Nikkan Gendai: “After the 15th, we feel there is a dangerous chance that the bill will be forced into law. We are organizing protests every night. We won’t give up.”

After decades in which students have been largely missing from the political landscape, the group’s formation has received substantial media attention. The group was founded two years ago, when Abe’s administration pushed through the state secrets bill — a law that the prime minister said was needed to make sure military secrets didn’t leak to China or Russia. Reporters Without Borders called it “a draconian law that violates the constitution and limits press freedom.”

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Proponents of the security measures are making their voices known as well. On Monday, 200 people gathered in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward and spoke in favor of the legislation.

Abe and other leading members of his party have made increasingly stronger public cases for passage of the bills, insisting they would bolster Japan’s peace and security, at a time when China keeps challenging Japan at its periphery. Abe has noted the repeated intrusions into waters around the uninhabited Senkaku islands, which have been under Japanese control for decades but are claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.

Protester Nunohara, though, isn’t convinced by those arguments. Outside the Diet on Monday evening, he said he believed that bigger issues were at play.

“I think Abe and the [Liberal Democratic Party] want a hand in the business of war and munitions. It’s big money, and Japan’s corporations want that,” he said. “I also think America wants to use Japan as a military pawn and Abe is complying.”

Adelstein is a special correspondent. Research assistant Reina Marie Iino contributed to this report.

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