Terra Firma

In Japan, the pacifism phoenix needs to rise from the ashes of decadent realpolitik

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Front (LDF)-led ruling coalition has gained victory in the upper house elections for the Diet, Japan's legislature, conducted over the weekend. This gives the coalition - New Komeito being LDP’s partner - a comfortable majority. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can now be certain that his government, unlike that of his six predecessors, will complete its term.

This could also be considered a victory for ‘Abenomics’, his three-pronged plan of monetary loosening, fiscal stimulus and pro-growth reforms, introduced after he became Prime Minister at the end of last year. His plan has seen moderate revival in the economic fortunes of the country illustrated by the figures: Japan has registered a GDP growth of four per cent and a stock market rise of 40 per cent.

Diet's upper house holds elections for half its seats every three years. So, out of a total of 242 seats, 121 seats were up for grabs of which the ruling coalition won 76, adding to the 59 they already had from their 2010 victory. The coalition already has a two-thirds majority in the lower house, taking its share to 325 out of a total of 480 seats in the bicameral legislature.

The freshly-won upper house majority could be seen by the hawkish Prime Minister as a renewed licence to push forward an amendment to the country’s post-World War II Constitution, enacted in May 1947. Though he seemed to play it down in the run up to the elections, his party has sent signals of carrying out the amendment following victory.

Bringing about changes in the way Japan’s history is studied and understood has always been a part of LDP’s agenda; the party has been in power for most part of the last six-and-half decades. However, certain factors have been able to block its efforts, the most important of which is the Japanese people’s support for the idea of pacifism

Origins of pacifism

Following the Meiji Restoration of 1882, Japan took pride in aiming to protect itself from Western influence. Belligerence and aggression were key features of its policy roadmap which needed a powerful military. Misadventures on part of a certain section of the bureaucracy, in the name of Empire, resulted in the country’s inter-war misadventures. Its imperial quest for territorial expansion and dominance led to an alliance with Fascists and Nazis in the Second World War, culminating in the horrific Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings and a humiliating defeat. Once under U.S. occupation, the country became an ally of the new capitalist hegemon U.S.; it turned itself into a laboratory where one big brother could carry out its cold war experiments to assert its supremacy against the other big brother USSR, which was busy in neighbouring countries like China and North Korea.

The most contentious as well as the most unique clause in the >Japanese Constitution is Article 9, which prohibits the state from maintaining armed forces as a mark of aggression.

“ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.

The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

The rigidity of the Constitution has acted as its strength. Under Article 96, any amendment would require two-thirds majority in both houses of Diet, followed by approval from the Emperor and a two-thirds approval in a national referendum. The Constitution remains unamended, sixty six years after it was adopted. Mr. Abe and the more hawkish wing of >his party seek to revise this. However, a weak economy may >prove to be a deterrent at present.

So how did the concept of pacifism take shape in the collective consciousness of Japanese society? >This study goes on to provide an illuminating explanation.

The first attribute it highlights is the narrative of victimhood that got imbibed into an entire generation’s psyche. The victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki used the term hibakusha to describe themselves which segued into a cult of victimhood nationwide. This was kept alive by various liberal movements and a progressive education system, even in the face of revisionist pressures.

Ian Buruma, professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College, New York, and a leading commentator on Japanese affairs, described Japanese pacifism as the ‘Cult of Hiroshima’, and its defining characteristics as the ‘black corpses’ (atomic bomb victims) in his book, “ Wages of Guilt: Memories of war in Germany and Japan”, quoted in the study.

The intelligentsia took responsibility for educating present and future generations about mindless destruction of the two cities. The school curriculum, kept insulated from political pressure, made the learning of Japan’s imperial past and education about the need to prevent another humanitarian disaster compulsory.

The flames of pacifism were also kept alive by participation in peace conferences. In 1945, Organising Committee for the Hiroshima Assembly to Protect the Peace issued a communique:

“We pledge to stand in the front lines of support. To do so is a solemn responsibility laid upon us, who first experienced an atomic bombing. It is also our right to do so.”

Also, when U.S. announced its decision to resume nuclear testing as part of the arms race, the Nagasaki Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs mentioned in a letter of protest that “we have protested against President Kennedy’s decision to resume nuclear testing because [of] our tragic experiences in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Bikini”.

In the peace resolution at the annual World Conference Against A&H Bombs, 2005, the declaration commenced with reference to the suffering of the hibakusha, and it strongly emphasised the fact that "Japan [is] the only nation that has suffered from the use of nuclear weapons in war".

The Japan Council against Atomic & Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikyo) is to conduct its next conference from August 3-5

Expression through art and literature

This sense of being a victim found expression in popular art forms like films, literature and arts. According to the information collected by the Hiroshima Prefectural Office and quoted in the study, by 1971, ‘nuclear explosion victim experiences’ about the city included 500 published books and articles and 2,234 written testimonials. Also, in 1983, major literary writings pertaining to the experiences of atomic victims were published in a massive 15 volume collection entitled Nihon no Genbaku bungaku (‘Japanese atomic bomb literature’).

The study also highlights the role of Japan Teachers’ Union for its contribution to peace education.

Societal changes

With the rise of a young generation accustomed to material prosperity and indifferent to historical scars, the spirit of pacifism has undergone a decline. LDP’s repeated electoral victories, apart from rise of factions within it with express purpose of doing away with Article 9, have also contributed to this.

This apart, there is also resentment in the minds of some sections of Japanese people at the arm-twisting done by the U.S. during occupation after World War II, forcing Japan into an age of economic liberalisation and mindless pursuit of prosperity

The refrain among those is, a country that saw itself defending its national identity from adulteration by Western culture in the early part of the 20th century - illustrated in Akira Kurosawa’s very first (released) movie, ' Sanshiro Sugata' (1943), a war propaganda film - was forced into accepting a pacifist constitution..

Material prosperity vs. pacifism

The national identity created after World War II centred on both on increased standard of living enjoyed by its people and the spirit of pacifism inculcated in them through education.

However, it was a matter of time before the two became mutually exclusive. Once economic prosperity reached its zenith, pacifism was likely to be given the short shrift.

The repeated victories of the conservative LDP; its repeated attempts to tamper with the curriculum; and the weakening of organised left; and polarisation of educational union along ideological lines have complicated matters further.

By the time the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power in 2009 - on a platform of change - pacifism had withered away. DPJ’s inability to fulfill its electoral promise to close the U.S. naval base in Okinawa delegitimised its hold on power which was followed by political instability in the party that led to the resignation of two Prime Ministers. The Fukushima crisis further exposed an insular bureaucracy, considered by many as the bane of Japanese administration, which had been strong ever since the Meiji Restoration.

Political instability has been a defining feature of Japan's democracy: there have been six Prime Ministers in the last six years, from both parties. At present, the Japanese people are occupied with solving issues related to economy. Abe has been less hawkish in his second term than his first. However, if he takes the electoral victory as an endorsement of his foreign policy, this may stimulate his revisionist ambitions.

His first aim is to amend Article 96 to reduce the threshold for amendment from two third to a simple majority.

Revision based on rationale

Another factor weighing in favour of increased Japanese militarisation is belligerence shown by an assertive China in the South China Sea. The U.S. had used Japan as an ally during Cold War to compensate for its ‘loss of China’ (1949); and partition of Korea (1953).

As Prof. Buruma >says, Japan cannot remain in its postwar period forever. Some steps have to be taken toward revision. It’s hoped that LDP does not revise it for worse, winning Japan more adversaries than allies in the region.

Murakami’s sense of victimhood

Haruki Murakami is arguably the best-known Japanese writer outside Japan and of the postwar generation. Critical of American role in Japanese affairs, he >had this to say in one of his essays:

"We were shown that the true meaning of life is meaninglessness, and were taught to live without thought. Our society and hierarchies were dismantled. We were forced into a system that does not produce 'adults'."

He feels the pacifist constitution robbed Japan’s capacity to wage war and brought about a sense of impotence.

“Regardless of winning or losing the war, the bottom line is that for the past sixty years, Japan has been a testing ground for an American-style capitalist economy, protected in a greenhouse, nurtured and bloated to the point of explosion. The results are so bizarre, they’re perfect. Whatever true intentions underlie Little Boy, the nickname for Hiroshima’s atomic bomb, we Japanese are truly, deeply, pampered children… We throw constant tantrums while enthralled by our own cuteness.”

This may represent only one strand of thought, perhaps one which most don’t subscribe to. However, this simmering feeling of injustice in many hearts - as the Japanese were not given complete closure after the twin bombings - is likely to result in repeated victory for more Right-leaning parties which would use the public anger to their maximum advantage. DPJ’s inability to provide alternative has not helped matters. The presence of the Left is weak.

Abe and his party’s hawkishness contrasts with the need to revive, rather than revise, the Constitution so that a more aggressive China can be countered in a benign manner. Pacifism would have a refreshingly different role to play today. Article 9 does not require dilution, it requires reinterpretation, an independent one, one led by the Japanese themselves.

I find myself in agreement with >this writer’s point of view. He quotes a poll, conducted in May this year, by mediahouse Nihon Keizai Shunbun and TV Tokyo. According to it, 56 per cent of respondents agreed that the “the Constitution should be revised”; only 28 per cent wanted to “leave it as it is”.

A year ago, in April 2012, with a faltering DPJ government failing to give them a satisfactory cope-up mechanism after the Fukushima accident, 53 per cent supported an amendment.

The only position Japan can adopt to balance Chinese territorial aggression is that of a neutral, non-nuclear, Swiss-like armed neutrality. Both over-dependence on the U.S. and a return to the 1889-Meiji-era style militarisation would create a repetition of cold war tactics of having pivots and counter-pivots. This would prove to be detrimental to everyone’s interests, including those of Japan’s allies in the eventual ‘pivot’ - its Asean partners and Australia.

Located in a seismically-active region, short of land and natural resources, Japan’s resilience has been repeatedly tested by natural disasters that have instilled and continue to instill a spirit of calm and pacifism in its people. Hopefully, the country will formulate a "post-post World War II policy framework", Japan-led and Japan-owned, which further strengthens pacifism.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 2:57:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blog-terra-firma/article4949329.ece

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