2015.08.03 Monday 17:56

Transformation of political culture in Japan

Discussions on the government-proposed security legislation have brought to the fore a clear polarization of political culture in Japan. One of the trends is anti-intellectualism. The other is civic culture pushing for democratization.


Anti-intellectualism has permeated not only movements that champion nationalism and part of the mass media but also the political circles. In the first place, the security legislation itself can be deemed as a product of anti-intellectualism. Many scholars of constitutional law and former chiefs of Cabinet Legislation Bureau declare that the security legislation violates the war-renouncing Constitution. But the government has been unable to give convincing rebuttals to their argument. Because Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are allowed to possess weapons only for the purpose of defending the nation, exercising the right to collective self-defense to defend another country is out of the question under the Constitution. In the Diet deliberations so far, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani have not answered straight on the questions raised by lawmakers but instead spent their time dodging the questions.

In the cultural sphere, authors and politicians who do not hesitate to flaunt their anti-intellectualism continue to fuel discrimination and prejudice. Novelist Naoki Hyakuta, who was invited to speak at a gathering of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers supposedly to discuss issues related to culture and arts, suggested that the two local dailies in Okinawa, which are critical of national government policies, must be shut down while LDP lawmakers trumpeted controlling TV reports by applying pressures on the sponsors of their programs. Some politicians and conservative journalists even tried to justify such remarks in the name of freedom of speech. Japan is a country where attempts to defame others through demagogy or negate freedom are condoned in the name of freedom of speech.


Anti-intellectualism has deteriorated the quality of political parties. The LDP has lost much of the width of perspectives and the sense of balance that the party used to have. Few voices of criticism arise from within the party against the Abe administration’s push for the security bills. It lacks next leaders who can step in to remedy a situation when Prime Minister Abe makes mistakes. This is a crisis both for the LDP and Japan.


On the other hand, a new wave of civic culture has certainly emerged and is spreading, triggered by the movement opposing the security legislation. In 1960, the attempt by Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi — Abe’s grandfather — to revise the Japan-U.S. security treaty met with large-scale protest movements. However, the culture of civic political movements then disappeared. It was only after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis gave rise to the movement against nuclear power that citizens acquired the practice of taking to the streets on a daily basis to raise their voices on important policy issues. Civic political movements scaled down after the LDP returned to power but they continued. A new movement led by students has built on such forces to generate public opinion. The students in the movement are using emails and Line messages to expand their organizations and are successfully mobilizing thousands and tens of thousands of citizens in rallies around the Diet compound. Such actions by students have in turn led scholars to be ashamed of their own silence — with many of them starting to speak up against the security legislation and to express their opinions on other political issues, including their call on the government to clearly state Japan’s remorse and apology over its wartime aggression when Prime Minister Abe issues a statement marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II this summer.


Approval ratings of the Abe Cabinet in media opinion polls dropped sharply after the administration railroaded the security bills through the Lower House, falling from the level around 50 percent to less than 40 percent insome polls, while disapproval ratings surged in many polls to top approval figures.


Meanwhile, facing strong public criticism, Prime Minister Abe had no alternative but to scrap the controversial plan to build a new National Stadium — the main venue of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo — at a massive cost of ¥250 billion, although an order for its construction had already been placed to a general contractor. People harbored a specific anger because the issue at stake was how taxpayer money will be used. The episode has proven that public opinion is not powerless against a government action.


In East Asia, pro-democracy movements began in the latter half of the 1980s, starting with the ones led by students in South Korea and Taiwan. Japan has long defined itself as a pioneer of democracy in Asia and supposedly viewed those movements in its neighbors in a favorable light. In reality, however, democracy in Japan has been confined to the system of political parties and parliament - which is just a form. It must be said that in fact Japan is right now following the democracy movements that started in its neighbors such as South Korea and is trying to create a new political culture of its own, Seventy years after the end of WWII, Japan’s political democracy is at a major crossroads. Will Japan, with egocentric anti-intellectualism and suspension of judgment, destroy the peace and stability built on its postwar democracy? Or will the new civic culture turn the nation into a more mature democracy? I only hope that the Japanese people will make a wise choice as we think of war and peace in the war anniversary month.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.


Japan Times, July 331


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