Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Blazing Gentleman of Shinjuku - or What Next for Japanese Pacifism?


'Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized”
-Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan (1947)

On the afternoon of Sunday the 29th of June, a certain Japanese citizen, whose name remains unknown, mounted the girders above the South Exit of Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. Hundreds of pedestrians watched on as this respectable-looking gentleman sat cross-legged on a mat, produced a megaphone, and protested against revisions under discussion to Japan's constitutional pacifism which had privileged it with seventy years of peace. Then, as firefighters approached, he doused himself in gasoline and burst into flames.

Japanese pacifism, and Article 9 of the Constitution which protects it, is a complex matter. It goes right to the heart of questions of Japan's identity and national journey, questions whose answers are honestly not at all straightforward. Let explore these today.

First, however, we should pause to give the blazing gentleman his due, for it takes tremendous courage, whatever one's opinions, to consign oneself to the flames. Appearing in his fifties or sixties, he was likely aware that he was joining a blistering worldwide heritage of self-immolation as political protest: protest tragic, protest divisive, but protest undeniably shocking and potent. Protest that declares that no matter how painful the flames may be, the pain of what is protested against is one thousand times worse.

Thích Quảng Đức did it in Saigon, the horror of that moment preserved and immortalised in Malcom Browne's timeless photograph from that war the Japanese authorities so controversially supported. In closer memory Mohamed Bouazizi did it in Tunisia, and the flames set alight the entire Middle East and North Africa – and still they burn. From Tibet to Tamil Nadu, and goodness knows where else, these flames still rise.

Before closing my eyes to go to Buddha, I have the honour to present my words to President Diem, asking him to be kind and tolerant towards his people and enforce a policy of religious equality.” - Thích Quảng Đức, 1963. A witness observed that “he was completely still, while those of us around him were crying and prostrating ourselves on the sidewalk.

Speak not a word against people who do this, or the flames will burn on and consume us all. We are not innocent bystanders, and we may hold no grievance against them for making us watch them burn. Instead, listen. Their actions accuse us: we have created a world which inflicts worse than this on people. We have created a world so insufferable to some of its members, that the only way left that they know to fight it is to set themselves on fire. But how dare we be shocked by a person on fire, if not by our societies' crimes against humanity?

In the case of the blazing gentleman of Shinjuku, his challenge to us is this: the fire is less painful than what will happen to a Japan which abandons its pacifist identity.

And he may have a point.

Almost two weeks after his protest, the Japanese media has still failed to provide any substantial coverage of his actions, and his name and current condition remain a mystery. As with the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the affair reeks of a cover-up, and in particular state broadcaster NHK is under fire for all the signs of partisan censorship.

That's a poor start. We don't have to agree with his words – after all, they concern the future, so any certainty in any direction is premature. But if we dare to call ourselves human beings, we do have to care, we do have to listen, and we do have to seek to understand. So unlike NHK, let's take a closer look at his concerns. Let's consider the story of Japanese pacifism.

The Story of Article 9 – or, When is an Army Not an Army?
Japan transformed from prostrate devastation after World War II into the roaring economic and cultural powerhouse of today, and its foundation for this was its new Constitution of 1947. Though written under the US occupation in a process overseen by its American supreme commander, Douglas MacArthur, this Constitution was not, as has been suggested, a simple American imposition. Indeed, the final document was the product of over a year of wrangling and back-and-forth drafting, in which Japanese politicians, often viewing the war as merely a setback in an otherwise honourable rise and urging superficial reforms, were confronted by a population and mass media furious at the catastrophe their leaders had brought down upon them. Most Japanese supported – no, demanded a comprehensive constitutional reset, to remove the militarists from power and prevent the disasters of the East Asia War from ever happening again.

The result was a Constitution in which the “peace clause” in question, Article 9, made Japan the first modern state to ever reject the notion of a sovereign right to war, and to commit to full demilitarization. This however was challenged almost immediately as US-occupied Japan got caught up in the unfolding Cold War in East Asia, specifically the victory of the communists in China and the outbreak of the Korean War. Thus, by the time the American forces left in 1950, Japan had put together a well-armed paramilitary “National Police Reserve”, which shortly evolved into the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) we know today.

Full demilitarization? Not quite, then. Article 9's concepts of 'war as a sovereign right' and 'war potential' have been fuzzy from the beginning – a fuzziness kept under tight control, nonetheless, by strict civilian control over the JSDF and the prohibition of military operations abroad.
The original signature page of the Constitution, with the imperial signature and seal (right).
In the absence of an army, Japan has instead relied on the US for conventional security. The 1952 US-Japan Security Treaty allowed the US to station its troops in Japan – one or two of whose members, in my last couple of years there, I have met, and whose presence remains very visible to this day.

This was contentious from the beginning. Critics accused it of subordinating Japan to the US's agenda, and thus to the Cold War capitalist bloc; giving the US licence to interfere with its forces in internal Japanese concerns; and risking drawing Japan into any conflict in which the Americans attacked other countries from their Japanese bases. Ironically, it was exactly this – Japan as a US springboard for the Korean and Vietnam Wars – that let Japan lay foundations for its economic resurgence through massive production and supply contracts for the US military. But to this day though the US presence remains under scrutiny, with recent flashpoints around the disruptive US airbase in Okinawa, and several nasty incidents of sexual abuse of Japanese citizens by US servicepersons.

Despite these grey areas, Article 9 has remained intact ever since. However the JSDF has continued to steadily expand and upgrade their equipment, and in the 1990s took part for the first time in UN peacekeeping operations abroad, in Cambodia and Mozambique. More dubiously, in 2004 JSDF troops were sent to participate in the occupation of Iraq, after the US invasion: again with restraints, in that they were supposedly limited to 'humanitarian' and 'reconstruction' work, and could not open fire unless attacked first. But this was still their biggest ever lurch away from domestic self-defence, and drew great criticism accordingly. In the last few years, the JSDF has become still more active in international peacekeeping, such as in South Sudan, and now even runs a permanent operation out of Djibouti to protect Japanese ships from Somali pirates.

Be its operations for better or for worse, the difference between an 'army' and a 'self-defence force' appears increasingly a matter of wordplay.

Furthermore, the end of the Cold War and the US's identity turbulence has seen a gradual, subtle, but noticeable decline of US involvement in the geopolitics of East Asia. This is constantly tested by a resurgent and ever more confident China, with whom Japan retains a lot of unresolved and angry historical baggage. Arrogant nationalisms are vibrant in both countries, and confront each other at every opportunity, such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute, though we should note Japan has island disputes with Russia, Korea and Taiwan (i.e. each of its neighbours) too.

Article 9, then, has made Japan constitutionally unique in the world: one of the only countries, and certainly the only major world power, to hold no standing army and categorically renounce the legitimacy of the use of force. On the one hand, in a world like ours today still bloodily beleaguered all over by humanity's violence problems, an example like that – of a country which rejected violence, and thus became stong – is valuable beyond comparison, and international society should be sorry indeed to lose it. On the other, Japan in 2014 has a fractious neighbourhood, a de facto army involved in multiple overseas actions, and an unreliable security guarantor whose might and status in the world is steadily eroding within and without. Is Article 9 still the best thing for peace in these circumstances? Or has it already died in its sleep?

Japanese involvement in overseas peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions, as of 2011. From Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.

Japanese society is sharply divided over this – which brings us back to the blazing gentleman of Shinjuku. The current ruling coalition, under prime minister Shinzo Abe, has now passed legislation to 're-interpret' Article 9 so that Japan would once again be able to expand its military and fight overseas to 'defend its allies', under the banner of collective self-defence. This is the most dramatic shift in its military policy since the birth of the JSDF in the 1950s.

Whatever we may think of this, one thing is clear. Look again at the text of Article 9. 'The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation'. 'Land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.' Arguably these were already breached, but a re-interpretation of this scale makes their redundancy unambiguous. These reforms, quite clearly, claim a national right to war, and assert undisguised intent to develop Japan's means to wage it.

In other words, the essence of Article 9 is rapidly disintegrating, and the husk of its constitutional form may be sure to follow. The nationalist momentum may be unstoppable – and all of a sudden, sooner than we ever imagined, we may wake to find Japan no longer a pacifist country. No longer capable even of the pretence.

Was our gentleman right to fear this more than fire?

Rearmament Nightmares
We all know what happened the last time Japan went to war. The outcomes could be described without hyperbole as the worst possible, both for the people Japan subjected and for the Japanese themselves.

Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima.
We also know that there are certain problems with how a large portion of the Japanese population and political establishment, including Shinzo Abe himself, have chosen to regard that history.

Of course we should not over-simplify. The Pacific War was a consequence of complex global circumstances quite different from today's, although none of us have really improved when it comes to not committing mass atrocities then trying to justify them. Nonetheless, our Shinjuku protestor would have been born in a world freshly shaped by that conflict, which reminds us that those calamities are not irrelevant curiosities in ancient scrolls, but living memories, which moulded the lives of millions of people alive today, members of a species no better with its violences and prejudices now than it was in the ignominious 1930s.

A Japanese military buildup, even without aggressive intent, could propel the region in a direction it does not want to go. We can scarcely envisage it convincing the Chinese to constrain their own military expansion, let alone contributing to any easing of the neuroticisms of North Korea. At worst, Japanese militarisation could take on a life of its own: the process would necessarily take on agency, even identity, in the form of the politicians and military officials directing it, who – as with the PLA in China – might perceive interests in pushing it as fast and as far as they can come what may, and exploit menacing reactions from the neighbours as leverage to do so in the name of “self-defence”.

That is, after all, what happened in the 1930s. Every dispute, every gaffe, every shock, every point of controversy, every Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands or visit to the Yasukuni Shrine or extremist statement from the likes of a Shintaro Ishihara or a Toru Hashimoto, could become a pretext for further armament, until the region swells up into a blistering waterspout of reciprocal, mutually-reinforcing military escalation, bursting with bloodthirsty nationalist egos and historical narratives so twisted that fact and fiction become totally indistinguishable.

Besides this, what of actual Japanese military interventions? Peacekeeping operations are one thing, but the British and American invasion of Iraq – whose current unravelling owes much to that reckless action – showed how easily “self-defence” can be worn as a sloppy cover for wars of aggression, of self-interest, of greed, and of staggering ineptitude. One may trust that Japan would not do anything quite so stupid, but the question remains: just what kind of military action are the re-interpreters expecting to carry out?

The resolution states that force can only be used when there is a clear danger to the existence of the Japanese state, or to the lives and rights of its people; when there is no alternative; and when the force resorted to is the minimum necessary. Such reassuring restraint, until you remember that this was exactly how the the expansion of the Japanese empire, and its methods and purposes, were characterized and justified: namely the existential threat posed by the racist empires of Western civilization, and the impossibility of peaceful engagement. And one fears that once again, raging nationalist narratives, not cool-headed analysis, would be the final judge of these conditions.

Nationalists clashing with Korean residents in Tokyo, 2013.
With so much of the history as unresolved as it is bloody, and such nationalists in Japan and its neighbours alike baying for militarisation and conflict, the threat of such confrontation must be taken seriously in the extreme. It may not look immediaetly likely, but then again, it never does – until one surprise, one change in the global scenery, one “provocation” or staged “incident”, whereafter things move too fast for any one person or country to control. In such conditions, the responsibility is surely on every person, and every state, unilaterally if need be, to do their utmost to keep their hands off their weapons and to control those forces within that seek to raise them. In Japan's case, a gallop towards militarization could herald a final and irreversible rejection of that responsibility.

If the blazing gentleman feared that more than the flames, we can hardly dispute his logic. A fire atop a bridge in Shinjuku, or a chain-reacting conflagration across the whole of East Asia? We are not wrong to be shocked by the former, but the latter should terrify us to the marrow.

Pacifism Nightmares
That is not to say the alternatives look much better.

Let's consider an opposite scenario now: the re-interpretation of Article 9 is shelved, Japan reaffirms its commitment to pacifism, and self-defence retains its narrowest necessary definition.

That does not solve the problem of the nationalists, screeching through the streets of Tokyo in their pitch-black vans, blaring slogans of imperial glory and death to foreigners from their megaphones.

Nor of the Chinese nationalists, roaring in reverse as the People's Republic further develops its army and navy, consolidates its control of the South China Sea, and provokes Japan in full knowledge that there is ever less it can do to respond.

Nor of the Kim Dynasty in North Korea: though one never knows what will come of it next, some manner of messy disintegration in that country seems ever more a matter of when, not if.

The South China Sea “nine-dash line”. China claims everything inside the red line is its territory, pulling the line itself out of some vague and arbitary historical orifice it makes up on the spot when questioned. The enormous oil and gas reserves and fisheries in that region are of course entirely incidental.

All this while the United States looks an ever less reliable strategic partner. Within it, where there remains no shortage of faith in its heroic narratives, there are bitter divisions about the US's role and proper place in the world to come, especially in the wake of its economic miseries and the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos. In a serious confrontation in East Asia, what could Japan rely on the Americans to be able or willing to do? On the one hand, US interventions typically have consequences much more shambolic than foreseen, or outright unconscionable; on the other it is very possible that the crucial moments may find the US refusing to stomach direct involvement at all.

What happens, we may ask, if a defenceless Japan finds itself in a confrontation to which it cannot respond? If, say, with the world distracted by some other disturbance elsewhere, or under the cover of some crisis or fait accompli, Chinese aggression transpires into all-out landgrabs or overt military bullying? This would, inevitably, be daft in the extreme on the part of the Chinese authorities and the PLA, and well they know it – but spectacular daftness is disappointingly common in humanity's political and military history, especially when overheated narratives of national destiny or survival are involved.

Yes, it is stupid. But our biggest fears should be those corrupted aspects of our kind that have seeped into our blood regardless of nation or culture – the national egos, the racisms, the prejudices, the hatred of those we consider different – and in East Asia today, these are real and influential. And from the Athenians in Melos to Nazi Germany in Denmark, from the Spanish in South America to the European empires in nineteenth-century China, the human race has a track record shameful and sorry beyond parallel in preying upon those who cannot defend themselves, even when it guarantees the ruin, sooner or later, of everybody involved.

No More Nightmares
None of this has to happen. Despite all these possible scary timelines, we must also consider that violent confrontation in East Asia is quite obviously in no-one's interests, least of all China's or Japan's. The bloodthirst of racists and militarists finds little in common in millions of students, businesspeople, scientists, artists, NGO workers and people in all parts of society, who increasingly travel between these countries, enjoy and learn from each others' cultures, consume each others' products, build their livelihoods upon cross-border interactions, and have friends, lovers and relatives across those borders with whom the internet facilitates their relationships. This is more the case today than ever, and we can hope that all of these people, in their very real interdependence, would fiercely oppose disruptions to these peaceful relationships and actively struggle against those who would seek their ruin.

Even from the most shallow and stagnant perspectives of national self-interest, confrontation woud be a foolish error in judgement. If the Chinese genuinely seek to develop their influence, it ill befits them to alarm and alienate all the countries of Southeast Asia and the Pacific with bombastic rhetoric and arrogant military posturing. Likewise there should be no kind of emergency in which militarisation would do Japan any good, at least not in the immediate future, that it could not already face with its existing self-defence forces and the very real ethical high ground of a constitutional choice for peace.

Thousands of protesters descended upon the Prime Minister's office on 30 June, on the eve of the re-interpretation, to express their opposition.

Chances are that the re-interpretation of Article 9 is more a political game – and a dangerous one – than the result of any serious strategic thinking. And in this, it bears the hallmarks of politicians' most foolish tendencies everywhere these days: waggling the national penis in the faces of other countries – a ridiculous impulse which accomplishes nothing – and worse still, seeking domestic popularity by courting violent and hateful nationalist forces, the very forces from which it is any honest citizen's foremost duty to protect his or her nation.

For make no mistake: the worst threat to any nation comes not from without – not from invaders, nor immigrants, nor foreign cultures or religions – but from within. That is from those of its own populace who would have it become arrogant, assured of its own superiority, divided against its weakest and most vulnerable, thirsting for the suffering of others and proud to inflict it in the name of patriotism and national interests: a force for violence, prejudice and cruelty in the world. These are the most abiding menace to every country on Earth, and for leaders to pander to them for political gain is not only reckless in the extreme, but an unpardonable dereliction of political duty, and the very betrayal which has seen these forces flare like felfire across much of the world.

Will Japanese pacifism endure? No answer is inevitable: the choice must now play out. But the stand of the Blazing Gentleman of Shinjuku was not an isolated incident, rather only the most extreme point at the crest of a wave of conclusive public dismay not only at the Abe government's intent towards Article 9, but towards mainstream politics itself. A wave, we should recall, set off in this case by a certain much larger wave at Fukushima, but also with a very global resonance. And it is this – the irresponsibility of the political classes, their failure to meet the rights and needs of their peoples, and the resort in frustration, pain and impoverishment to more extreme and violent agenads – that perhaps represents the true threat to peace, for Japan and for us all.

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