Bullhorns blare the Japanese national anthem from unmarked, black vans circling the streets of Shinjuku in downtown Tokyo, and not a single passerby seems to notice. Outside Shinjuku station, men with bullhorns and rising sun bandanas stand on a cigarette-stained pavement and shout ultraconservative rhetoric and slurs against “foreigners,” typically from neighboring countries China or Korea, and no one pays them any mind.
The Japanese people who rush by – frazzled men with briefcases, or solitary and listless bodies tapping away at their phones – have simply seen enough. They’ve heard it all before. Maybe they notice, maybe they don’t. In a nation of ostensible courtesy, noise pollution is often strangely ignored. Too much noise only causes numbness.
In a nation of ostensible courtesy, noise pollution is often strangely ignored. Too much noise only causes numbness.
But ears can’t be closed, not like eyes, not fully.
And so politicians speak, and speak, behind podiums and in rows, identical unless you step close enough to count the blemishes.
Every year or so, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, head of the conservative, comically-named “Liberal Democratic Party of Japan” (LDP) stands behind a podium and tells people how important it is to revise the Japanese constitution. To consider its spirit. To do it justice. To ask whether or not, within its sometimes vague confines, there is room for adjustment.
Such a revision, originally due to be voted on this month, but now delayed yet again until 2020, requires a 2/3 majority in both houses of the Diet. The revision in question is whether or not Japan should have a military capable of acting on foreign soil, according to the stipulations laid out in Article 9 of the constitution – an expansion of the capabilities of the country’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF).
Since 1954, Japan’s SDF has stood ready to defend the country, but it is unable to act beyond the nation’s borders. It hasn’t been capable of projecting power abroad since the end of World War II. Now, due to a confluence of factors – not least of which is the growing nuclear threat from North Korea – Abe and the LDP argue that Japan needs to update Article 9 of the constitution in order to “protect its allies.” This has been Abe’s and the LDP’s pet project since 2012. Abe has reiterated time and again, year after year, that he sees it as his responsibility to revise the Japanese constitution, drafted in 1947 after Japan was defeated in World War II.
But this issue is not simply one of clarifying legal definitions of military bodies. Nor is it an issue strictly of policymaking, or even one of altering supposed neutrality in global conflicts. Nor is it more than casually connected to a nationalistic desire to break away from post-World War II dependence on military protection from the United States and its bases in Japan, no matter the robustness of the SDF as a fighting force (currently ranked fourth in the world according to combat capabilities, with the eighth largest budget). It’s an issue that cuts to the heart of the country’s identity and its relationship with its own government.
Neither the ultra-rightwing uyoku dantai groups nor anyone else in Japan, is advocating a return to the imperial aggression of World War II or the xenophobia of the Edo era. It’s more an issue of regional power and saving face, especially regarding rival Korea and nemesis China.
There’s simply no space for many Japanese people to consider grand, existential questions about what nearly conceptual pieces of paper like constitutions say Japan “ought to be.” The frazzled businessmen and phone-glued zombies of Shinjuku would not experience a single change to their daily lives if the government succeeded in pushing through its agenda. Those citizens are too preoccupied ignoring the barrage of noise, or else working to earn money and then shopping to spend that money. Many don’t care what passes above their heads in the political sphere so long as they can do things like go to work, save a bit of money, and spend time with family. But they would mind, of course, if Japan was then pulled into a global conflict and the violence and mayhem intruded into their lives.
And that, precisely, is the point.
As it stands, Japan is an absurdly safe nation with outstanding public order and an incredibly low petty crime rate. A misplaced cell phone will be placed on a nearby wall. A single, dropped yen will be returned to its owner down the aisle in a grocery store. A lost purse will be promptly handed to the police with its contents intact, even in a megalopolis like Tokyo. This is not hyperbole; it is fact, regardless of whatever detrimental factors of conformity and the public expectation of personal gentility contribute to it.
Modern day Japan is a land where people are as fascinated by pink bubblegum pop and all-things-cute as they are by depictions of hyperviolence and geysers of candy-red blood in anime. The former is arguably a manifestation of the reinforcement of anti-aggression as a national concept, and the latter the roiling brutality that will never cease to fascinate the human mind, especially in eras and regions of relative peace where violence remains remote. In this era, bodies are hidden behind the closed doors of hospitals before their eventual cremation. It is this tension on the surface of Japanese society that holds it together like the skin of water over the ocean. Now, the ruling government wants to drop anchor.
Modern day Japan is a land where people are as fascinated by pink bubblegum pop and all-things-cute as they are by depictions of hyperviolence and geysers of candy-red blood in anime.
Only the very elderly at this point live to recount, firsthand, what they saw with their own eyes in World War II (remembering that it was that war that led to the constitution in its current form, including Article 9). An elderly gentleman who survived a firebombing as a child told me a story of calling for his parents in the aftermath of the explosions. Smoke drifted in the air and across bodies strewn on the ground, including a mother and child who still held each other in death. Where they stayed touching their skin remained smooth and untarnished even though the rest of them had turned to charcoal.
The desire to alter Article 9 is chiefly the result of political agendas, but this sentiment will eventually work its way down. Thus it is with a nation where pressure to conform is absolute, and those on top can almost always get the support they need if they persist long enough. However, political elites still need public goodwill to govern.
National Diet Building, Tokyo
A poll in May gauging public acceptance of revising Article 9 to expand military power found that the populace was almost evenly split on the matter (the final vote was 42% in favor of amending it, with 47% opposing). The elderly, however, a demographic typically associated with conservatism and the espousal of traditional values, were against altering the constitution no matter how it might hearken back to the national pride of the World War II era. And surprisingly, younger people supported the proposed amendment.
Surprisingly, younger people supported the proposed amendment.
A 19-year-old Japanese law student told me she believed that the youth of Japan crave a dramatic historical moment, if not a complete societal upheaval. Something to invert the recent past and shake the status quo. Perhaps the endless after-school cram schools and visions of 15-hour workdays into their 30s is less appealing than mass death.
And so, politicians take advantage of this sentiment.
Like a chartable celestial event, the members of Japan’s two major political parties step on stage this year as they have every preceding year. In plain public view, they reveal their true brand of politics: one that is neither conservative nor progressive, but which is just reflexively obstructionist of each other’s initiatives.
There are, in fact, any number of political parties in Japan, including parties devoted to complete pacifism, but only two really matter: the Liberal Democratic Party (conservative), which says Japan needs an active military, and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (slightly less conservative), which reflexively opposes the LDP’s policies and says Japan needs to leave its military alone. And so, an already unengaged public remains 50/50 long enough for action to be taken over their heads, and the elderly remain bifurcated from the young.
And so, an already unengaged public remains 50/50 long enough for action to be taken over their heads, and the elderly remain bifurcated from the young.
So then, in the end it’s not the decision about Article 9 itself that matters, or even what it represents about the “spirit” of Japan or its identity. It’s unrealistic to believe in such a direct relationship between social norms and the machinations of remote political bodies. And if the Diet ever does pass its 2/3 vote to amend the constitution, it’s equally unrealistic to believe that it will suddenly throw the region into conflict and make rival countries decide to forego their strategy of diplomatic posturing for war.
Instead, the decision about whether or not to change Article 9 is a decision about the relationship between a government and its people, and about whether or not said government has to follow the wishes of its people or can push its agenda through regardless (albeit obliquely).
It is also a statement about the political process itself, about whether or not the people of the country – the frazzled businessmen, the solo-walkers – will one day cut through the noise of life’s silence and turn their eyes to the bullhorn blarers on the side the street in black trucks, and open their mouths to speak truth to power.