1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

A larger military role

Julian Ryall, Tokyo
July 1, 2014

Japan's Cabinet has approved a reinterpretation of the constitution that permits the military to defend an ally and commit troops to combat missions overseas, but critics warn the move undermines the nation's basic law.

Soldiers from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force's Western Army Infantry Regiment await instructions during a joint-exercise with US Marines and sailors with the 15th Expeditionary Unit for Exercise Iron Fist 2014 at Camp Pendleton in southern California on February 9, 2014.
Image: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

For a nation that is famously slow to take to the streets in protest, two demonstrations of public anger at the government's plans to reinterpret the terms of the constitution have shaken Japan.

In the evening on June 30, more than 10,000 protestors gathered close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office in central Tokyo, chanting "Listen to the voices of the people" and "Do not destroy the constitution." An estimated 2,000 people were still there the following morning in a protest that was supported by labor unions, human rights groups and citizens' organizations.

And while the demonstrations never turned violent, ordinary Japanese were shocked at footage of a man dressed in a smart suit climbing on a bridge close to Shinjuku Station on Sunday. The man addressed the assembled crowd through a megaphone and was critical of the plans of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government to radically overhaul the nation's security policy.

A protester holding a placard Shouts slogans at a rally against Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to expand Japan's military role as police officers refrain him in front of Abe's official residence in Tokyo June 30, 2014.
Some 10,000 protestors gathered close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office, chanting "Listen to the voices of the people" and "Do not destroy the constitution"Image: Reuters

Then, without any warning, the man stood up, poured gasoline on himself from two bottles and set his clothes on fire. Latest reports indicate that the man is critically ill in hospital.

Limited impact of protests

But neither incident was sufficient to dissuade the government from its course of action, however, with the ruling parties agreeing Tuesday that the terms of the constitution can be reinterpreted to enable Japanese troops to protect and assist the forces of allied nations in the event of a military incident, as well as permitting Tokyo to send troops to combat zones to assist in military operations.

Abe has stated that he is keen for Japan to play a more proactive role that is commensurate with its economic power in international peace-keeping operations and other similar security hotspots.

But the opposition to the change has been strong, with 58 percent of people responding to a recent poll by the Mainichi newspaper, saying they are opposed to the government lifting the self-imposed ban on the right to collective self-defense. Similarly, 71 percent of the people responding to the survey said they fear that Japan will get dragged into an armed conflict after the change is approved.

"The people who experienced the war are the ones who have been most strongly opposed to this change and Abe is a person who never lived through that conflict but who is making this decision," said Chie Matsumoto, a labor union activist.

'A dangerous step'

"I do hear some younger people saying that Japan needs to be able to defend itself better from threats, such as those posed by China or North Korea, but this is a dangerous step and look what happened last time Japan sent troops overseas," she added.

The last Japanese forces to be involved in organized fighting in Asia finally laid down their weapons in 1945, the end of a war that had claimed millions of lives and caused utter devastation to large parts of the region.

One of the staunchest supporters of a constitution that was introduced after World War II and commits Japan to never again waging war has long been New Komeito, a political party that draws most of its membership from a staunchly Buddhist religious grouping and is allied with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in government. But even New Komeito could not resist the pressure that was brought to bear by the Liberal Democratic Party on this issue.

"They were our last hope for stopping Abe and his cabinet," admitted Matsumoto with a resigned shrug. "But they caved in to the LDP and their followers must be feeling quite betrayed."

And while the party at the national level insists that it has managed to include some clauses in the final agreement with the LDP that will protect the constitution, none of the party's local chapters have endorsed the move and some are even demanding that New Komeito withdraw from the coalition.

Neighbors' reservations

Japan's neighbors, who were on the receiving end of the worst excesses of the Imperial Japanese Army in the early decades of the last century, have also expressed deep reservations, with a protest staged outside the Japanese embassy in South Korea.

Demonstrators claimed Japan is intent on reviving its militarist past and reclaiming the Korean peninsula as its colony. Similar claims have been made in state media in North Korea and China, although the United States has expressed its support for Abe's maneuver.

"Japan has ... every right to equip themselves in the way they deem necessary," said Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the State Department, in a press conference on Monday. "We encourage them to do that in a transparent manner and we remain in touch with them about these important issues."

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo June 24, 2014.
PM Shinzo Abe has stated he is keen for Japan to play a more proactive role in international peace-keeping operationsImage: Reuters

Despite the domestic opposition, analysts here do not believe the outrage is sufficient to topple a government that has firm figures in broader public opinion polls and is doing a good job of getting the economy back on track.

"Obviously there appears to be a significant amount of opposition, but its not on the same scale as in 1960 when the Japan-US Security was renewed," Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, told DW.

"At that time, memories of the war were still very much in the forefront of people's minds, a large part of the Japanese public had actually gone through that conflict and there was a deep-seated aversion to the idea that Japan might again get involved in any kind of military activity," he said.

"I would say that the public anger will blow over pretty quickly and won't have a lasting impression on the government - although Abe must be mindful that one negative incident involving Japanese troops could get the country into uncharted waters," he cautioned.

Skip next section Explore more