In a historic speech this past August commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed that his country would “never again resort to any form of threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” A month later, his administration passed a bill that could now put Japan’s armed forces on the fighting grounds of distant lands—including Iraq and Syria.
For the first time since World War II, the Japanese parliament abandoned its longstanding pacifism in favor of a new security bill that authorizes offensive military operations overseas under the premise of “collective self-defense.” Although more than half the population opposes the measure, Abe has continued to push for changes in security policy, invoking the threat of Japan’s regional enemies and the need to offer military assistance to its number-one ally, the United States. The new legislation—passed by the upper house in September—allows him to “reinterpret” Japan’s pacifist constitution without going through an amendment process and neuter, in effect, its key provision, which outlaws the deployment of military forces abroad.
Article 9, dubbed the “peace clause,” is part of the constitution that was adopted during the US occupation of Japan in the wake of the war. The American drafters, as though conducting a social experiment, engineered a constitution that emulates and even surpasses the ideals of popular sovereignty and individual rights enshrined in the United States Constitution. Abe’s defiance of the 68-year-old document stems in part from his desire to rid the country of its past under occupation, starting with dismantling the constitution that he says was “drawn up under significant compulsion.” As a top US ally, Japan has also faced pressure from the United States to become a “normal nation” with full military capabilities. Abe’s militarism seeks to recast Japan as an “equal partner” with the United States in the international arena.
Yet many Japanese want to steer the country in a different direction. On the eve of the vote, brawls broke out in the parliament as a mob of opposition leaders surrounded the committee chairman, grabbing at the microphone in his hand. With several lawmakers escorted off, the scuffle delayed the bill’s passage until well after midnight. But the spectacle on the Diet floor was no match for the one outside. Beyond the parliament gates, tens of thousands of protesters carrying antiwar placards flooded the streets in one of the largest demonstrations in recent memory; the streetlights illuminated the faces of young students and activists shouting into megaphones, their voices undampened amid the pouring rain. Hemmed in by police vans on all sides, men and women, young and old, chanted in unwavering unison: “Protect the Constitution!” “Abe Must Go!” “No War!”