This week, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partners won a two-thirds majority in the legislature’s upper house, to go along with their two-thirds majority in the lower house. A two-thirds majority is required in each house to begin the process of amending Japan’s constitution. And amending the constitution is one of the central planks in the LDP’s platform.
The constitution was imposed on Japan by the United States after the Second World War; it has never been amended. Why should it be amended now? As Bloomberg reports, the LDP has pointed out that “several of the current constitutional provisions are based on the Western European theory of natural human rights; such provisions therefore [need] to be changed.”
What has the LDP got against the “Western European theory of natural human rights”? you might ask. Well, dozens of LDP legislators and ministers — including Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe — are members of a radical nationalist organization called Nippon Kaigi, which believes (according to one of its members, Hakubun Shimomura, who until recently was Japan’s education minister) that Japan should abandon a “masochistic view of history” wherein it accepts that it committed crimes during the Second World War. In fact, in Nippon Kaigi’s view, Japan was the wronged party in the war.
According to the Congressional Research Service, Nippon Kaigi believes that “Japan should be applauded for liberating much of East Asia” during WW2, that the “Tokyo War Crimes tribunals were illegitimate,” and that the rape of Nanking was either “exaggerated or fabricated.” It denies the forced prostitution of Chinese and Korean “comfort women” by the Imperial Japanese Army, believes Japan should have an army again — something outlawed by Japan’s current constitution — and believes that it should return to worshipping the emperor.
When, in the wake of Nazi-level war crimes, the U.S. forced Japan to become a liberal democracy, it also forced Japan’s emperor to issue the following statement denying his divinity: “The ties between us and our people have always stood upon mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon legend and myths. They are not predicated on the false conception that the Emperor is divine, and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.”
And members of Nippon Kaigi are still mad.
In 2013, at a Nippon Kaigi party celebrating Shinzo Abe’s new appointments to his cabinet — 15 of whose 18 members were Nippon Kaigi-niks — the old imperial “Rising Sun” flag was flown, pledges to “break away from the postwar regime” were made, and the (very short and controversial) imperial national anthem was sung. The lyrics are addressed to the emperor:
“May your reign
Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations,
Until the pebbles grow into boulders
Lush with moss.”
The LDP’s draft for an amended constitution would eliminate the prohibition on imbuing religious organizations with “political authority,” clearing the way for the return of state Shintoism and emperor worship.
The draft would also repeal the provision 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,” along with the provision that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” (Not that Japan has, hitherto, been too strict about this particular rule: According to the Credit Suisse Military Strength Index, Japan currently has the fourth-strongest military in the world, behind only the U.S., Russia, and China.)
The new constitution also repeals the right to free speech, adding a clause stating that the government can restrict speech and expression that it sees as “interfering [with] public interest and public order.”
(In fact, Japan’s current government has been working on the free-speech problem for a few years now: According to the Japan Times, in 2014, the internal affairs and communications minister warned that broadcasters could be shut down if they aired programming that the government deemed was “politically biased.” The director of Japan’s public broadcasting corporation — a friend of Prime Minister Abe — has said publicly that it was his policy that the NHK (Japan’s BBC) “should not deviate from the government’s position in its reporting.”
In just the last five years, Japan’s press freedom — as ranked by Reporters without Borders — has fallen from 11th globally to 72nd.
The new draft constitution adds a warning that “the people must be conscious of the fact that there are responsibilities and obligations in compensation for freedom and rights.” These “obligations” include the mandate to “uphold the [new] constitution” and “respect the national anthem” quoted above. Also that “the people must comply with the public interest and public order,” and “the people must obey commands from the state” in times of “emergency.”
But not everyone is bound by these obligations: The Emperor is exempt from the requirement to uphold the constitution. Likewise, the Emperor is required, under the new constitution, to seek “advice” from the cabinet — but not, as he is currently required, to seek “advice and approval.”
Who can say if 51 percent of Japanese voters would vote against their own civil rights?
If the new constitution is approved by two-thirds of each house of the Japanese legislature, its adoption will be voted on in a national referendum requiring a simple majority. Who can say if 51 percent of Japanese voters would vote against their own civil rights? On the one hand, it seems absurd; on the other, they did give the LDP’s coalition a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers.
Five years ago, President Obama called for a foreign-policy “pivot to Asia.” With China seizing and militarizing the South China Sea, and North Korea testing delivery systems for its new nuclear weapons, it would probably be a good idea — “pivot to Asia”–wise — not to stand idly by while our most important Asian ally, and the second-richest democracy in the world, reverts to fascism.