The overcast sky over the elegantly lit Diet building – Japan’s Parliament in central Tokyo’s western-style Hibiya district, was a perfect contrast to a simmering scene on the ground.
As the working day neared an end in one the world’s most-happening cities last Monday, a steady trickle of men and women, old and young, emerged with placards and fluorescent red and yellow sticks in their hands out of the busy sub-way stations onto the noisy roads leading to the parliament building.
For a moment, the square opposite the ash-white structure resembled the scenes so very familiar at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi or on Calcutta streets – venues for the political protests back in India.
An old woman, about 5-feet tall, in her late seventies was shouting the slogans in the Japanese joining in the rapturous chorus. She was asking for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s resignation. Tae Ko, the woman, came to take part in the protests the way she had, she said, on several occasions for about a month now. On and off, she’s been taking part in the protests with her friends of the same age and many of Japan’s commoners.
“No more war,” read one of the many placards waved by the enraged demonstrators, some of whom have been regular to the protests opposite the Diet. “Scrap the bills,” read another, held by an old woman. "Peace!" screamed yet another.
Central Tokyo has been witnessing acerbic protests – very, very rare in Japan, since June this year when the Shinzo Abe administration began moving fast to clear a set of contentious security-related bills that critics say would radically alter the country’s pacifist policy and ease its military restrictions.
A large section of the Japanese people is vehemently opposed to it as it would herald Japan into a new avatar that for many rekindles the memory of the World War-II. In July, as the lower house of the Diet passed it, it apparently triggered wide-spread public demonstrations, perhaps largest since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. On August 30, more than a lakh people reportedly converged at the Diet choking the roads to make their views heard by the lawmakers. Over this past week, as the bills came up for a vote in the upper house, thousands turned up for demonstrations, notwithstanding persistent rains.
On Friday, before a three-day vacation began, the upper house finally passed the bills despite a week of chaotic scenes inside the parliament and an aggressive resistance from the opposition bloc.
Critics of the bills said Japan had finally bid goodbye to Pacifism.
The ruling alliance consists of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and the Buddhist-backed Komeito. It has the support on these bills from two or three minor opposition groups. The opposition is led by the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party and Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party). The opposition couldn’t stop the bills’ passage due to weak numerical strength, but as the Japan Times reported, it put up resistance with an eye on the next summer’s election for the Upper House.
On Thursday, the Japanese media played up the story of the chaotic scenes inside the Diet a day earlier as some of the opposition members tried to physically stop the chairman of a special committee from completing the procedure to pass two of the contentious bills, almost in same vein as the scenes witnessed in the Indian parliament during the monsoon session.
The bills passed by the Diet actually sought seek to re-interpret the country’s Pacifist Constitution and ease Japan’s tight restrictions on the use of military to intervene overseas first time since the WW-II.
Abe's ruling coalition calls them the Peace and Security Preservation Legislation and says they would be a deterrent to the aggressors and help his nation defend its allies in the eventuality of a war.
The 1947 Constitution’s Article 9 reads 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.”
Since the end of WW-II, Japan has not permitted its self-defence forces to take part in overseas combat, even in support of its key ally, the United States. The new set of legislation would substantially expand the powers of Japan's military, in a major departure from its foreign policy for seven decades.
Now, going by the reports in the national dailies in Japan, the law allows the country to exercise its right to self-defence in response to an attack on its ally under three conditions: One, such an attack poses threat to Japan; two, no other appropriate means (including the diplomatic) are available; and three, the use of force is limited to the minimum necessary.
In his speeches in the Diet and outside, Abe has acknowledged the opposition to the bills but says it was necessary to pass the law in Japan’s interests. He has said on several occasions that the Japanese troops would not be sent to fight in foreign territory, or in conflicts involving multiple nations, but it would take an active part in protecting its economic and security interests.
China and north Korea, as expected, reacted immediately criticizing Japan's move, saying the new laws would create instability in the region. The United States welcomed the move, even as reports indicated that Abe administration was now moving rapidly to tap into the resources to arm the nation's security forces, a natural corollary to the passage of bills.
Outside the parliament though, the everyday protests grew louder. The demonstrations may continue in the days to come.
“For me it’s more of a personal story,” said a woman in her mid-sixties who had come to the protest site last Monday with her friend. Some of her relatives, she went on to say, were the Kamikaze pilots (who flew suicide missions into the enemy territories) during the Second World War and her father, a soldier, had suffered a bullet wound in his leg. He still suffers from the haunting memories of the war, she said. “We had failed to raise our voice then; we can’t commit the same mistake today,” she said.
Many of the protestors had similar personal stories from the war, said a University of Tokyo professor, who was among the protestors shouting for the scrapping of the bills. “I don’t want my students to be part of any violence in future,” she said of her decision to participate in the mass protests.
A vast section of Japanese, however, seems to back Abe’s move. They feel that Japan can’t keep its eyes closed to the rising military might of China; Beijing’s alleged misadventures in the South and East China seas; and North Korea’s build-up of nuclear arsenal. It’s a view that highlights a changing Japan.
The opponents say in that case the Abe administration should simply amend the Constitution instead of misinterpreting it, while pointing out that the section 9 of the Constitution should be dropped if Japan wants to flex its military muscles overseas, whatever be its premise.
According to a poll published last Monday by the daily Asahi Shimbun, 29 per cent of the Japan’s voters supported the bills while, 54 per cent opposed them; the intelligentsia called the bills unconstitutional.
It began as a political movement of the left parties in Japan. But over a period of time, it has drawn the students, retired judges, scholars, film makers, and common people on to the streets.
Aki Okuda, founder of the group Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, was quoted by an evening newspaper Nikkan Gendai as saying that they feared the bills would be forced into law and that they – the students – won't give up their opposition. This is first time in four decades that the students have taken to street protests in Japan. The last time the youth took to streets was in the late 1960s over the revision of the Japan-US security assistance pact, when the US became Japan’s military protector.