In the future ‘democratic’ wars of the United States, there will be a new active ally – Japan. While tens of thousands of people protested late into the night in front of the National Diet in Tokyo, the Japanese ruling party, led by Prime Minister Abe, steamrolled security bills through the Upper House of the Japanese Diet. These new laws made concrete the Cabinet Resolution to ‘re-interpret’ the Japanese Constitution, so that Japanese troops could fight wars outside Japan. Up until now, Article 9 of the Constitution which ‘renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes ‘ had meant that Japan’s Self Defense Forces could not be dispatched to fight in overseas wars, but the Cabinet Resolution and then the passing of the security bills enables effective re-militarisation of Japan.

Keito Hirabayashi and Kumar Sundaram

For the mainstream experts and commentators, fed upon some or other variant of neo-realist theory of states and their international behaviour, postwar Japan remained an enigma. A nation-state without an army that could be dispatched anywhere in the world, the Japanese case was either explained away by citing the security umbrella that it got from the US after the war, or was speculated to give in to the ‘normal’ macho behaviour once the war-era generation faded away. The implicit consensus, shared by both the Japanese ultra-nationalists and international mainstream wisdom, was that the post-war peace constitution of Japan was nothing more than the remnant of a victor’s justice that the US imposed after Japan’s surrender.

However, the actual history and dynamics of pacifism in Japan, and perhaps more so its unfolding terminal crisis, actually defies the above myths and speculations. The thousands of common citizens – including large numbers of young people – who continue to protest on the Tokyo streets even after passage of Abe’s security bills, are a testimony that pacifism in Japan is much more deep-rooted than imagined by the nationalists and international experts. The agitation to defend the Peace Constitution, led, in its latest stage by the students group SEALDs, has attracted unprecedented numbers of youths, who were previously assumed to be politically apathetic. That these young people could come on to the streets in such numbers and with such energy has been a huge source of hope for the already established networks of workers, women, Buddhist monks, writers, artists and other various sections of common Japanese people, who have worked relentlessly to protect Article 9.

Such widely held respect for Article 9 by Japanese citizens shows that it was far from being an imposed norm. Had it been so, the US would have easily imposed similar peace and democracy in other states that it conquered and captured.

While it is true that the post-war occupation administration under the American General Douglas MacArthur came up with a constitution prohibiting Japan from keeping an army, it became acceptable precisely because it reflected the general war fatigue and a more deeper opposition to the wartime dispensation shared by the common citizens of Japan. Although executed by an occupation regime, the formulation of the Constitution was more consultative than what Japan had experienced till that time. Not surprisingly, when the changed American interests in the region with the start of the Korean war in 1950 led to an expectation of a remilitarised Japan, the common people of Japan vehemently defended the constitutional pacifism. In post-war Japan, ‘Peace’ actually became a rallying point of a variety of aspirations – freedom and individual liberty, worker rights, women’s empowerment, social security which became possible due to saved resources and energies. Under the umbrella of peace, not only a vast middle class emerged – the largest among the developed countries, it even gave Japan a new self-identity in the world and suited even the elite interests to a great degree.

The reversal of pacifism by Abe is being resisted so vociferously inside Japan also because its seen not just as a departure from the 70 years experiment, but somewhere it is also being perceived as a qualitative shift in the domestic power relations between the citizens and the state. The significant shift in the state’s core focus – from social security to national defence, is co-terminus with the consolidation of neoliberal economics under Shinzo Abe.

Moreover the way Abe has gone about executing this change is something that has provoked extreme anger amongst the majority of citizens. While everyone from constitutional experts to the general public agrees that exercising the ‘right to collective self-defense’ which is the key to sending troops to foreign countries, requires a change in the actual Constitution. As the procedure to amend the Constitution requires not only a two thirds majority in both houses of the Diet, a majority in a popular referendum must also be obtained. Abe realised that this was never going to happen. If amending Article 9 was put to popular vote, Japanese citizens would categorically reject it. Thus he adopted this approach of first making a Cabinet Resolution and then using his majority in the Diet to push through legislation which ‘re-interprets’ Article 9. This amounts to a gross violation of the rule of law and inspired the use of slogans, placards and even costumes condemning ‘The Dictator’ during the street demonstrations. There was a massive sense of crisis that Japan was losing its democracy along with its pacifism. Indeed the only way to eliminate pacifism is to do it undemocratically because it has so much popular support.

The 70 years of unique pacifist experiment in Japan – despite its many contradictions – points at a very significant potential about human beings: There is nothing ‘natural’ about war when it comes to human societies. If the dynamism and texture of societies change from inside – whether through social uprisings or through historical coincidences, and a combination of both in the case of post-war Japan, we are capable of realising our aspirations under the umbrella of peace. Of course it is a continuing battle even after that. Peace has to be defended through active social movements and solidarities formed upon an enlightened realisation of collective interests. Japan makes this very clear…especially in recent times when this battle to defend peace has begun in earnest.

Japan’s 70 years of peace were such a window, a unique example that history provided us through a complex coincidence. Now we have to strive for it and attain it through our active and shared agencies. Like democracy is just a few hundreds years old in the human history, Japanese pacifism has been an important experiment over the last 70 years. This latest threat to Japanese pacifism has resulted in a huge outpouring of visible support on the part of ordinary citizens. There is much to suggest that they will not allow the new laws to deal a fatal blow to their deeply respected peace constitution. This world experiment in pacifism has not yet ended in failure, but it is up to the world to realise the significance and the possibilities it represents.

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