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Case Study on Democracy and Rule of Law: Japan and the World at a Crossroad?

Massive Protest Against Abe's New Security Law

Massive Protest Against Abe’s New Security Law

Recently, the Japanese Parliament passed controversial legislation pushed by Abe to allow Japanese forces to fight abroad for the first time since 1945.  Here is how Reuters reported it:

Japan’s parliament voted into law on Saturday a defense policy shift that could let troops fight overseas for the first time since 1945, a milestone in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to loosen the limits of the pacifist constitution on the military.

Abe says the shift, the biggest change in Japan’s defense policy since the creation of its post-war military in 1954, is vital to meet new challenges such as from a rising China.

But the legislation has triggered massive protests from ordinary citizens and others who say it violates the pacifist constitution and could ensnare Japan in U.S.-led conflicts after 70 years of post-war peace. Abe’s ratings have also taken a hit.

The legislation “is necessary to protect the people’s lives and peaceful way of living and is for the purpose of preventing wars,” Abe told reporters after the bills were approved by the upper house. “I want to keep explaining the laws tenaciously and courteously.”

Japan’s ally the United States has welcomed the changes but China, where bitter memories of Japan’s wartime aggression run deep, has repeatedly expressed concern about the legislation.

China’s Foreign Ministry said the move was “unprecedented”.

“We solemnly urge Japan to learn the lessons of history … uphold the path of peaceful development and act cautiously in the areas of the military and security, and do more to help push regional peace and stability rather than the opposite,” it said.

Not surprisingly, this has incensed a large number of average people in China … and both Koreas … but also (take note!) the people of Japan. 

Abe’s controversial security law was passed despite massive protests, organized at grassroots.  One protest on August 30 numbered over 120,000! Yet despite opposition from almost every segment of Japanese society, including students and business leaders, the country appears hapless to stop Abe’s re-militarization of Japan.

Emotions have run high, with even scuffles occurring in the parliament after the passage of the bill. Many scholars have opined Abe’s law to be unconstitutional (see also, e.g., this wsj article, or this Japan Times article).  A politician considered to be a leading successor to Abe has broken ranks to publicly question the merits of the bill.

A poll by the daily Asahi Shimbun from Sept. 12-13 found that of the 1,994 respondents only 29 percent supported the new security laws.  Paul Craig Roberts – a well-respected political commentator – has noted that the law passed despite “strong opposition of 80 percent of the Japanese population”

What should one make of Japan when its leaders choose to pursue an act that is a major depart from current policies – if not unconstitutional – with the support of only a small segment of the population?

Imagine if something similar happened in China (where the leaders decided to militarize itself against a neighboring country with strong opposition across the populace), people in the West would be up in arms – clamoring how China is another Nazi Germany in the making … how dangerous nations are that are not democratic and that do not uphold the rule of law are.  Yet when it happens in Japan, not a flinch…

It’s not just that Abe has rammed the law through the legislature with hardball politics antics, but that in the last few years, Abe has pulled all levers of powers to enact other draconian laws – such as the recent controversial state secrecy act – to stifle criticisms about him and the government (see e.g. this Guardian article or this article in the Diplomat or this article in Japan Times or this or this article in the New York Times or this slightly older Asia Times article).

Many observers wonder if Japan has abandoned its postwar path of peace.

China – together with S. Korea – appears to be taking a calm and calculating wait-and-see attitude toward the politics unfolding in Japan, saying only that they are “concerned.”

“Concern” is by all measures an understatement!

To all peace-loving people of N.E. Asia, we should be more than concerned.  Japan should learn to come to its senses regarding its role in WWII.  But even if it can’t in the foreseeable future, I believe the future can still be peaceful if Japan is sufficiently committed to a peaceful future.  A cornerstone of the security order in the Pacific in the last 70 years post WWII is Japan’s pacifism.  But that cornerstone seems to be eroding … fast!

Abe is taking Japan – and Asia – down a dangerous path.  Will this be the “battle of the bulge” of Japan’s right before they settle into the dustbin of history … or will this be the start of the path to more wars and suffering in N.E. Asia?

More importantly for the whole world: will people begin to wake up to the fact that notions of Democracy and Rule of Law are fickle … just like ordinary politics … and that citizens everywhere need to get more in tune with basic notions of humanitarianism, and not blind worship of ideological rhetoric such as human rights, rule of law, freedom, or democracy?

Fascism arose in Germany from the bowels of democracy.  Can the same thing happen again, except this time in Japan?

Only time can tell…

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