EDITORIAL: Citizens taking a stand to protect democracy in Japan
The triple disaster that befell Japan in 2011 was the catalyst for profound reflection among citizens and calls for fundamental changes in our society.
The Great East Japan Earthquake generated towering tsunami that triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and plunged the nation into a state of shock. Some people likened the catastrophe to a “seconddefeat in war.” Many Japanese took it upon themselves to try to engineer change in society.
One visible manifestation of the reflective mood was a massive rally calling for an end to Japan’s reliance on nuclear power generation. It was held in Tokyo about six months after the calamity. An estimated 60,000 people attended the “Sayonara Genpatsu” (Good-bye to nuclear power generation) rally, according to the event’s organizers.
In his address to the rally, Kenzaburo Oe, a Nobel laureate writer, stressed the importance of the gathering and demonstrations in general as a means for citizens to express their views. “What can we do? All we have are such rallies driven by the democratic spirit and demonstrations by citizens,” he said. Nearly three years have passed since then.
ABE SOWS SEEDS
During this time, the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power. The LDP-led government has sought to restart idled nuclear reactors and revived the old-style policy of spending on massive public works projects.
The grim realization has dawned on many Japanese that they have failed to bring about change.
Some people have become disillusioned. Others have lost heart or simply grown weary.
There is no denying that the bitter sense of resignation that set in among the people, coupled with their deep disappointment at the performance of the previous government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, has provided much political capital for the Abe administration.
A pillar of democracy is a belief in the need to have constructive, in-depth exchanges with people of opposing opinions.
But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to believe quite the opposite. He seems to think that as the nation’s top leader, chosen through elections, he can have his own way and would be wasting his time listening to others' opinions.
This, then, explains the Abe administration's outrageous decision to seek an effective elimination of constitutional restrictions on Japan’s use of armed force through nothing more than a Cabinet decision.
The Diet, which is dominated by the ruling parties, has been showing increasing signs of acting as a rubber stamp body in the face of the administration’s strong-arm approach to policymaking.
Are ruling party leaders aware that the prime minister’s heavy-handed tactics for pursuing his political agenda and the pitifully tame Diet are spawning and fostering a new breed of political actors who think and act on their own?
The question is whether this situation is fortunate or unfortunate for this nation’s negligent politicians.
MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD
The English phrase “Fight the power” is the principal slogan adopted for a student demonstration staged in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district on May 3, Constitution Day, against the newly enacted state secrets protection law.
The slogan is “a little too radical, but probably OK because it is in English,” said one of the student organizers.
「『Ｆｉｇｈｔ ｔｈｅ ｐｏｗｅｒ』、これは権力と闘えって意味で、ちょっと過激なんすけど、まあ英語だから大丈夫かなと」
The 400 or so participants practiced chanting in chorus in a park where they gathered before taking to the streets. They took part in the demonstration as individuals, not as members of any organization, in response to calls on the Internet or invitations by friends to turn up for the rally.
As they started marching on the streets, led by a car equipped with a loudspeaker beating out a rhythm with heavy bass sounds, the demonstrators kept chanting, “No to the state secrets protection law” and “Protect the Constitution.” These rather stiff phrases, chanted in a rhythmic pace, echoed across Shinjuku.
Participating students took the microphone in turns.
“I feel happy about being born in Japan, where we can live freely in ways we like,” said one student. “But the state secrets protection law was rammed through the Diet in the face of opposition. As I was concerned that the Japan I love so much could be destroyed if nothing was done, I felt compelled to act.”
“I’m not ashamed of expressing my will to protect my freedom and rights,” said another. “And I believe in making ‘constant efforts’ to do so.”
They all spoke clearly in their own words and from their hearts.
Do they want to change their society? It would seem they are more interested in protecting their society.
The way the controversial bill was railroaded through the Diet raised many doubts and questions in their minds.
They asked themselves what democracy really means. One tentative answer they came up with is that it means they need to keep thinking on their own without any fear of making mistakes and continuing to voice their doubts and questions if they think that something is wrong.
That is why they took to the streets and made their voices heard.
“Tell me what democracy looks like?” one student shouted. “This is what democracy looks like!” responded the others.
「Ｔｅｌｌ ｍｅ ｗｈａｔ ｄｅｍｏｃｒａｃｙ ｌｏｏｋｓ ｌｉｋｅ？（民主主義ってどんなの？）」のコール。
「Ｔｈｉｓ ｉｓ ｗｈａｔ ｄｅｍｏｃｒａｃｙ ｌｏｏｋｓ ｌｉｋｅ！（これが民主主義だ！）」のレスポンス。
One scholar argues that, in a period of upheavals when people find it difficult to envision a bright future, they tend to cling to something by engaging in physical activities.
The students are well aware of the harsh reality. They know society doesn’t change easily. But they also know they don’t have to give up. They are more focused on continuing, rather than winning their battle.
CHANGE IS HAPPENING
Anti-nuclear demonstrators held their 100th rally in front of the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on the first Friday of May.
The number of participants has fallen, and the enthusiasm of the regular event has waned. Instead, it has become part of the everyday lives of people still taking part in the event.
There are couples sitting on the lawn and eating rice balls and groups singing songs. They enjoy spending time in their own ways in areas around the prime minister’s office, which are “opened to the public.”
Demonstrators have stuck to some basic principles, including keeping their acts peaceful, focusing on core messages and participation as individuals. Without the experiences accumulated through regular, uneventful anti-nuke rallies in front of the prime minister’s office and the wise strategies developed for this new type of demonstrations, there might not have been the waves of people protesting against the state secrets protection law in front of the Diet last December or the recent student rally in Shinjuku.
“Its strong roots are not visible/ But they are there even though they are invisible/ Invisible things exist,” Misuzu Kaneko says in her book, “Hoshi to tanpopo” (The star and the dandelion).
Like dandelions, these civic movements have deep roots in people’s daily lives. Like pieces of dandelion fluff, the voices of these people waft off and reach somewhere else. The fallen seeds take root at new places.
On May 15, the Abe administration will take a step toward allowing Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense. Probably, many pieces of fluff will swirl up into the air again.
Society is changing, deeply, quietly and calmly.
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 15