Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

Reflecting on Japan’s pacifism and the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings

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By Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

On Sept. 17, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial security bill passed, marking the biggest shift in Japan’s defense policy in half a century, despite months of protest nationwide. These protests have distressed many within the country who are despondent at the divisive polarization of opinions on whether Japan should be able to intervene militarily overseas to aid allies. Mass scale protests themselves are generally uncharacteristic for Japan, however, this issue has inspired aggressive opposition for the security bill within parliament itself. Scenes from the night of the vote were broadcast on national television, including opposition politicians piled on top of the committee chairman, wrestling away his microphone to prevent the voting process. Meanwhile, lawmakers from Prime Minister Abe’s party pulled them away and formed a physical barricade around the podium.

The debate surrounding the constitutionality of affording Japan’s defense forces a larger role overseas continues to obscure the larger underlying question: how will this symbolic shift play out practically? Japan’s self defense force has already been recognized as one of the strongest military forces in the world, with technologically advance air, sea and land capabilities. The extent to which Japan will change practically has yet to be seen, but the public response to the bills’ passing alone has been substantial.

The passage of the security bill effectively reinterprets Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, a pacifist provision stating that Japan “forever renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation.” At the very least, it represents a symbolic shift towards a more hawkish Japan. Domestic opinions on this bill are often polarized, including some people favoring Japan becoming a “normal nation,” while others fear that this change will enable Japan to help the United State wage “an illegal war” in the Middle East.

Much of my work towards the end of this summer focused on speaking with individuals, in both Nagasaki and Tokyo, about their reaction to these historic changes during the 70th anniversary memorial ceremony for the atomic bombing and end of the Pacific War. Japan’s defense policy is inextricably linked to collective war memory, which has added fuel to public polarization on the topic and entrenched the media in a partisan framework.

Both Nagasaki and Tokyo’s memorial ceremonies are rooted in commemorating the past, and both used the same history to advocate for or against increased defense forces, ultimately cautioning against repeating the mistakes of the past. Whereas Nagasaki’s pacifist message for peace has usually focused on the abolition of nuclear weapons in order to ensure a peaceful future, this year marked a shift towards eliminating all forms of war, including even the potential for war. Prior to the security bill controversy, much of the protests in Tokyo focused on decommissioning Japan’s nuclear power plants and speaking out against the human rights problems in Fukushima, following the historic Great East Japan Earthquake in March of 2011. Tokyo’s memorial ceremony was not known for massive protest turnouts, but the introduction of the security bill set the stage for pacifists and hawkish nationalists to have something to rally around or against.

Some American press omitted exploring the relevance of these important memorials in contemporary politics. The New York Times described Hiroshima’s ceremony in detail, briefly touching on the city’s skepticism towards the authenticity of Prime Minister Abe’s declaration for peace. Conversely, for Nagasaki’s memorial, the Times opted to leave out any discussion of the ceremony altogether in favor of reopening the tired debate of whether it was right or not to have used the atomic bomb.

To address the deficit in content covering the nationwide protests, I’ve included below two videos that capture the concern and energy of the protests on both sides of the debate in two cities that represent its extremes, Nagasaki and Tokyo. Although the security bill has passed, the diversity in emotional response has not, and thus, a reflection on public reaction remains relevant. I intentionally left both clips as raw as possible to invite reflection, not political imposition, on viewers to experience viscerally the unfolding historic political protests within Japanese society. What is lacking in domestic debate and discussion is a safe space and public forum for compromise and discussion between both sides. Many historians and political theorists have debated the pros and cons of Japan’s militarization, as well as the relevant implications. In order for Japan to move forward in a rights-respecting way, all of these considerations should be publicly aired.

Nagasaki City, Japan (August 2-9, 2015)

Compared to five years ago, Nagasaki City’s peace events felt different. The city’s rhetoric and messages during the official peace ceremony subtly shifted away from nuclear weapons and towards war as the primary anathema. The city’s Peace Park, always decorated in symbolic crane offerings for peace, included illustrations and posters villainizing the security bill. Many communities from around Japan, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hometown, travelled to the city to distribute flyers in protest of the security bill and in solidarity with Nagasaki, one of two cities martyred in collective Pacifist memory as a symbol for eternal peace.

The city also seemed less concerned with international response. Whereas five years ago, I was chased down by Japanese journalists for interviews on my thoughts on the lack of American diplomatic presence at the peace ceremony, this year, the media and public shifted focus towards domestic targets and, arguably, persona non grata, Prime Minister Abe.

Nagasaki City Hall commemorated the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing by inviting hundreds of international boy and girl scouts from over ninety countries to an International Youth Peace Conference. At the conference, a boy scout from Okinawa, a city rife with controversy over the American military presence, asked the keynote speaker, an atomic bomb survivor, what his views were on the security bill. This was not the typical nuclear weapons-related fare. His response was that only two good things that came out of the war: (1) he appreciated his family infinitely more, and (2) Japan adopted Article 9 of the Constitution as a commitment to never wage war again. In addition to participation at the conference, British, French, and even Iraqi global citizens roamed the peace park and city in observance of this special anniversary and its significance in a greater collective wish for peace.

The Peace Ceremony itself was split along partisan lines, and the audience was not afraid to chime with applause and verbal attacks depending on the speaker. Despite the unbearable heat, seating was filled to maximum capacity one hour prior to the opening remarks. Prime Minister Abe remained silent on general security matters, but restated Japan’s commitment to uphold the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles,” and to continue to provide support for aging atomic bomb survivors through the 20-year-old Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law. An angry voice in the audience yelled out during the Prime Minister’s speech, but was overpowered by the consistent wave of cicadas chiming before he was pulled away by security. When Sumiteru Taniguchi spoke on behalf of Nagasaki’s atomic bomb survivors, he described the security bill as “a return to wartime era” and that it “will lead to war.” He further described it as “an attempt to overturn the nuclear abolition activities and wishes held and carried out by the hibakusha and those multitudes of people who desire peace,” which drew a round of applause. Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue directed his speech towards the Prime Minister and Diet, urging them to listen to the voices of unease and concern regarding the destruction of the pacifist ideology “engraved in our hearts 70 years ago.” More applause from the crowd ensued, changing the tone of the ceremony from memorial to impassioned debate forum.

Tokyo, Chiyoda Ward, Japan (August 15, 2015)

Every year on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, the Japanese Emperor and Prime Minister deliver memorial speeches from central Tokyo (Chiyoda Ward) to the nation, amongst invitation-only members of government and surviving family of wartime victims. Near Nihon Budokkan, the indoor arena typically used for this official speech, is the controversial Yasukini Shrine, which has been internationally and “indelibly associated with unrepentant historical revisionism, and a resurgent ethnic nationalism,” according to Christopher Pokarier, a professor of business and governance at Waseda University in Tokyo. In plain terms, it is a shrine to commemorate soldiers and other military officials fallen in war. It is central to the way many honor those who have passed in service, sometimes family, during the Pacific War. Pokarier, writing for Australia’s The Independent, notes that “right-wing groups, militaria aficionados and very many ‘ordinary’ Japanese, visit the shrine. Their motives are as diverse as their social identities, and belie simple generalizations about the meaning of Yasukuni.”

While this memorial has always been normatively divisive, this year, people in favor or against a militarily stronger Japan were faced with contemplating how society may soon be affected. One woman expressed support for the security bill on paper, but was concerned about its execution, specifically the potential for future political abuse, which could result in the unnecessary deaths of many Japanese citizens.

While it is typical to see a diverse crowd of nationalists, military-garbed hawks, ordinary citizens and fringe minority groups around Chiyoda during the commemoration ceremony, the main drag turned into ground zero for marches in support of the security bill by late afternoon this past year. Once more, the heated debate was taken to the streets, literally, as thousands of citizens marched with Japanese flags shouting “頑張ろう日本” or “Try your best/you can do it Japan.” Some citizens stood on street corners with microphones imploring passersby to “get worried” and “to think of the children because China is coming.”As I found myself on the corner of the main intersection, I filmed and watched for about two hours as thousands of people passed by, repeating these messages as others applauded.

Eventually, at least fifty police, in full body armor and helmets, blocked off the street, set up barricades right in front of where I was standing and proceeded to stop traffic by driving their squad buses into the center of the street. While at first it was unclear to me who needed protecting, the group around me suddenly turned sour and began angrily yelling at a group marching through the center of the street. It turned out to be pacifists making their way through the area, sharing their own views on the security bill.

Carolina van der Mensbrugghe was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She conducted an independent project documenting the stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki, Japan with help from the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace and Nagasaki City Hall.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Video and Photo credits: Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

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Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

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