by Juliet Bardot
Perhaps it was when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe boldly made a visit to the famous Yasukuni shrine to pay respects to Japanese military men who died during World War II.
Or, perhaps it was when Abe agreed to give up nearly 700 lbs. of Japan’s nuclear materials to President Obama to dispose of properly and support global denuclearization.
Yet maybe it was Abe’s return to the role of Prime Minister in 2012 after he resigned in late 2007 due to health issues.
Either way, the charismatic Prime Minister of Japan has been shifting the political atmosphere of Japan as much as earthquakes shake the island’s terrain. The greatest change came in late June when Abe’s plan to reinterpret Japan’s outdated constitution, in particular the war-renouncing article 9, was approved by the Japanese cabinet.
Article 9 of the Japanese constitution essentially states that Japan’s military is strictly for self-defense. This article was one of the constitutional adjustments made with the United States after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Now, with Abe’s hope of reinterpreting article 9, and potentially even revising article 9, Japan’s military may act on the more offensive side, though strictly reinterpreting instead of revising article 9 means Japan will not engage in foreign wars but instead could, for example, shoot down a missile fired by an aggressor. Put in perspective, attempts to revise the Japanese constitution last occurred shortly after Japan regained sovereignty in 1952. These attempts failed.
Thus, it is noteworthy that Abe, unlike past Prime Ministers, was able to successfully seal this major change in his potentially short time in office as Japan has experienced its fair share of somewhat inconsistent leadership prior to Abe’s election in 2012. In 2006, Japan elected and then dismissed a total of 5 different Prime Ministers for various reasons. While a Japanese Prime Minster can serve up to 4 years in office, the Japanese system allows for a Prime Minister to be removed with ease if the diet is not in agreement. The result of so many short-termed leaders failing to accomplish much in such a short office terms has left a discouraging imprint on Japanese citizens. According to data released from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications after July 2013 elections, Japanese voting participation between the ages of 20-24 scored a lowly 31.8% and no other age group about 40 scored higher than 50%.
Yet, a shadow of passion and vehement interest seems to be rising to accompany Abe’s radical changes, though it may not be for the good.
University students as well as anti-nuclear groups have been gathering in Tokyo to protest the new change. Signs picture a silk screen of Shinzo Abe, a giant target printed across his face and “PUBLIC ENEMY” printed above the portrait in a threatening font. One radical protest included self-immolation.
During the parliament’s session, Abe and his faithful Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) faced major opposition from the New Komeito party of Japan. The New Komeito party is also backed by the Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhist group of Japan. Both of these groups hold pacifist views and represent Abe’s major opposition. Other arguments against Abe considered that Japan didn’t need an offense military because there was no need for one. Through loop holes, Japan could remain pacifist and under the United States’ nuclear umbrella without creating their own military.
Abe’s subtly nationalistic changes have also not been welcomed by Japan’s international neighbors. Asia-Pacific countries such as China and South Korea are adamantly against Japan’s new endeavor. Neighbor China only recently requested the Nanjing Massacre site to be listed as an UNESCO world heritage archive and also declared an anti-Japan holiday where Chinese celebrate Japan’s loss in WWII and honor the Chinese who died during the Japanese occupation.
To add to Japan’s list of negative relations, South Korean President Park Geun-hye refused meetings with Shinzo Abe after his visit to Yasukuni shrine was publicized. Even after Geun-hye met with Abe, as encouraged by President Obama, Geun-hye still remained icy. Not only was South Korea occupied by Japan during WWII, South Korean women were also subjugated as sexual comfort objects for Japanese soldiers. South Korea also supported the unveiling of a monument in the Chinese province of Xian honoring the Koreans who fought to free Korea from Japanese colonial occupation between 1910 and 1945.
Despite these negative repercussions, Abe’s pro-Japan motives are to be expected. With a history of relatives previously employed by the Japanese government, one can only assume Abe has plans for a bigger, braver Japan. In a March 2014 issue of TIME magazine, Abe told the magazine he wants Japan to be proud of itself. With a rapidly aging population, the world’s largest national debt as a percentage of the country’s GDP and recent nuclear disaster in the northern Fukushima prefecture, Abe’s intentions do seem heroic. Japan even lost its No. 3 economic status to India earlier this year.
“I want to restore life into the Japanese people,” Abe said. “I have made a pledge never to wage war again, that we must build a world that is free from the sufferings of the devastation of war.”
In another press conference earlier this July Abe emphasized his positive motives considering Japan’s self-defense change.
“It will be strictly a defensive measure to defend our people. We will not resort to the use of force in order to defend foreign forces.”
“I am a patriot,” Abe further told TIME magazine.
Yet, perhaps Abe may be too much of a proud patriot to truly restore Japan. In March of this year, Abe released a statement that his administration would no longer visit the controversial Kono Statement in order to repair issues more relative to Japan’s health as a nation. The Kono Statement, created in 1993, dealt with Japan’s exploitation of Asian “comfort women.” Such negligence only caused already disgruntled South Korea to further raise her heckles.
The Abe government’s negligence has also impacted Japan internally. Radical media sources like the film The Cove and new manga Ichi Efu expose the Japanese government and local governments as distorters of the truth. Examples include local governments in the Taiji area lying about the amount of mercury in dolphin products and TEPCO distorting information about the true working conditions within the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. While distrust of the government in Japan isn’t nearly as blatant as other Asian countries, negligence within the Japanese government still seems as if it could be an obstacle for Abe’s plan to grow Japan as well as raise moral within the Japanese population. Both of the issues, amongst others, have inflamed the Japanese population resulting in protests and rallies around Japan.
While Japan is a modern nation that produces many technological novelties admired here in the United States and abroad, the country still teeters between decline and recovery. Abe and his administration seek a confident, remodeled Japan but may be on the verge of pushing too hard, or possibly even in the wrong direction. All things considered, it seems the recipe for a truly reformed and successful Japan would be first, a meticulous manicure of Japan’s relations with China and South Korea. Second, the Abe administration, and administrations to follow, would need to carefully consider improving their government’s attention to internal issues. Japan’s future, while now it is in fresh, full and promising bloom, is most delicate at its beginning.