Cynical narrative of Japan's 'war bill' stokes regional fears of its intent

Stephen Nagy says the opposition, for its own benefit, has successfully controlled public perception of amendments to the country's security law, which are modest and necessary

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 10:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 10:15am

The passing of the new security law allowing for collective self-defence in Japan has been described as a "move away from pacifism", "opening Pandora's box" and the "unsheathing of a new Japanese sword". Considering the nature of the bill, its extreme limitations and Japan's domestic constraints such as a greying and shrinking population, mounting domestic debt and deeply embedded pacifist norms at a sociocultural and institutional level, one wonders how and why this narrative has taken root so deeply.

In the regional context, both Chinese and Koreans experienced the brunt of the brutality of Japanese colonialism and imperialism and have obvious reasons for their deep reservations about any move away from the strictest interpretation of Article 9 of Japan's constitution. At the same time, though, both nations are cognisant of Japan's post-war pacifist culture, behaviour and significant commitment to international law and norms.

Stoking fears about Japan's remilitarisation is not new to a region where many are jostling for regional and global influence. Implicit in the rhetoric is that Japan remains a threat, and changes to its security policy are a manifestation of that threat. This is deceptive and manipulative but it serves the political constituencies in China and South Korea who are the core supporters for each country's leaders.

As for the so-called 'undemocratic' nature of the bill, it was passed with the support of five political parties, and the government has won a majority at two elections. That's hardly undemocratic

Domestically, Japanese opposition parties effectively outmanoeuvred Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in controlling the narrative around the new security bill. By framing it as a "war bill", as militarism or an undemocratic process, they skilfully used inflammatory slogans to mobilise support, while using the issue to weaken Abe's government in order to bolster their own political prospects.

To illustrate this manipulation, we should examine the strict limitations of the bill, such as the prerequisites to allow for self-defence participation. They are: one, that an armed attack against a foreign country in a close relationship with Japan occurs and there is a clear threat to Japan's survival and that people's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness would be overturned; two, that there are no other appropriate means to repel the attack and ensure Japan's survival; and three, that use of force be kept to a minimum. Clearly, a country bent on militarism or war would not include so many limitations. The opposition's argument that this is a shift away from Japan's post-war pacifist ideals is disingenuous. The new law stipulates Japan can help allies at war through the provision of supplies and logistics. This does not mean troops on the ground.

Besides, the opposition seems to have selective amnesia, as under the Democratic Party of Japan administration in 2012, Japan agreed with the US to strengthen "bilateral dynamic defence cooperation, including timely and effective joint training, joint surveillance and reconnaissance activities". In the same year, Japan and Australia agreed to promote security cooperation.

As for the so-called "undemocratic" nature of the bill, it was passed with the support of five political parties, and the government has won a majority at two elections. That's hardly undemocratic.

The passage of the bill demonstrates how political leaders in power and in opposition carefully manipulate narratives to suit their political objectives. Through empowering grass-roots organisations with the facts on policy, citizens can more intelligently participate in their democracy and avoid being entrapped in misleading narratives.

Stephen R. Nagy is an associate professor in the department of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo