Is Prime Minister Shizno Abe leading Japan towards a more authoritarian identity? This might seem like a strange question, as Japan has been considered a democracy since US occupation of the islands came to an end in April of 1952, and then bouncing up to become of the world’s largest economies. However, since Prime Minister Shizno Abe first came to power in 2006, criticisms and worries have arisen around Abe’s -right-wing and pro-nationalist sentiments and actions. These actions could seriously change the structure of the Japanese Democracy.
Shizno Abe has already introduced some of the most dramatic reforms since the end of World War II, such as calling for a revision of Article 9 to the post war constitution, reframing Japanese history in education, dismantling certain press freedoms, and promoting state secrecy, among other reforms.
Back in 2017, Abe announced that he wanted to see a new constitution by the end of 2020. With his party (The Liberal Democratic Party) and its coalition working out proposal to rewrite the constitution, particularly in order to alter Article 9 which currently codifies Japan’s Special Defense Force (SDF) to the extent that war is illegal for Japan to declare. Many however are concerned that due to Abe’s deep nationalist ideals that Japan could lead back to its imperial past or being flung into a foreign war that the US started overseas if Article 9 is altered. With the LDP and its coalition controlling two-thirds of Japan’s Diet (Congress), the revision might pass through, bypassing various opinion polls across the country show that most citizens are starkly divided on the issue and want for more debate possibly a referendum. To do this, as David Landau, PhD. Describes “…he would pursue constitutional changes that would reduce the required majorities for constitutional change from two thirds of the Diet to only a simple majority.”
Which begins to beg the question as to where that might leave the state of the Japanese Democracy if Abe bypasses the public consensus but Landau continues “There is little risk that such a change will render Japan thoroughly undemocratic, but it does serve to erode democracy by allowing the powerful LDP to unilaterally push through any changes it might want. Such changes could obviously be used to increase the power of the LDP and to reduce the already-weak checks (such as the judiciary) on its power.” Giving these ever increasing powers over to Abe and the LDP undermines the legitimacy of their government as that legitimacy requires a belief in the laws and rules of the system and broad support of the masses. With such a power grab, it is hard to say weather or not Japan’s citizens will still support Abe’s government, but again, as the polls refenced above, it seems unlikely.
Abe has also sought out to cast and reframe Japanese history, especially when it comes the horrors of WWII. The more conservative government under Abe has pursued an agenda that replaces or modifies national apologies and textbooks that provided insight into Japan’s war crimes. Abe himself has been instrumental in establishing a more patriotic view of these events including visiting a war shrine to imperial Japanese soldiers and been interviewed saying that he wanted to replace apology statements made by the government in 1993 and by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995. Textbook changes have been in the works since 2013 and have finally been changed late last year in 2018 to reflect Abe’s more nationalist approach towards Japan’s wartime history. These changes include changing victim numbers during the Japanese invasion of China, definitions of “comfort women” and “forced labor” among other distinct changes that alter the view of Japan’s atrocities during WWII. This revision of history allows for a serious change in the education and socialization of Japanese youth and sociality, possibly building ever increasing nationalist sentiments which is exactly what populist leaders like Abe want – unmediated direct mass support. Framing himself as a charismatic patriotic leader and tapping into the concerns that Japan has lost its “presence” in the power structure of the world by appealing to those who accept this reframing and more patriotic view of Japan, Abe can build a base to which he can support his polices like constitutional changes and shutting down the media.
Along with further dismantling the negative view of the countries actions during WWII, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of expression has concluded that Abe’s government has backtracked on media freedoms and shifting public interest debates. This coincides with another report from the UN Human Rights Council which reported “significant worrying signals” on the subject. Abe has pressured journalists to praise the government’s accountably of certain disasters like the 2014 Fukushima Nuclear Plant Disaster rather then point out how poorly the government took to some issues, this is in conjunction with a controversial conspiracy bill that was passed in June of 2017 that allows the government to target people plotting crimes. While the Japanese government has said it is using the law to fairly target terrorists, the UN and opponents say that it is too broad and allows the government to go after individuals reporting the news that is unfavorable to the government in addition to go after opponents. There is an ere that this bill is starting to erode civil liberties, which is a focus of the establishment of the rule of law, which as discussed earlier erodes the legitimacy of the democracy. This bill also could be taken to dismantle free and fair elections as well as an even playing field by targeting political opponents and ensuring that the LDP retains power and moves away from democratic principles.
These advancements made by Abe and his government to “nationalize” Japan gives significant concerns into the chain of events that are affecting the Japanese public including limiting their participation by bypassing debate and referendum as well as voice their concerns about a “rearmed” Japan, the denial of Japanese war crimes and socialization of youth to a patriotic government, and the shutting of unfavorable media and the freedoms of expression and media that are associated with it. Surely, Japan is not the champion of democracy in the far east as many interpret it to be because of the actions that Abe has taken to seize power and retract the liberal democratic principles that Japan has held since WWII.