Japan’s Mass Public Protests: Recovering National Memory

In recent years, the Japanese population has challenged its government’s policies in public rallies on an unprecedented scale. Just this August, over 120,000 protesters gathered outside of the Japanese parliament to rally against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposed security bills, which aim to expand the capabilities of the Japanese military. The rally in Tokyo was just one of 300 across the country that weekend. This brand of mass mobilization is not new, however; August’s protests were preceded by a series of rallies in 2011, during which over 100,000 protesters called for the permanent closure of all nuclear power plants in Japan. The country has not seen public demonstrations of this size since the 1969 student protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. While these two protests might seem unrelated at first glance, an underlying current binds the seemingly discrete issues of domestic energy and military policy. Japanese remilitarization and nuclear power are both indelibly linked to the nation’s memory of World War II. The public protests against them are a call to consciousness, a reaction to Japan’s growing national amnesia,

Before WWII, under the guise of Asian unity, Japan launched a campaign of imperialism throughout East Asia and the Pacific Islands. Annexing Manchuria, Taiwan, and Korea, the Japanese killed millions of civilians in China and South East Asia. When detailing the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in the name of Emperor Hirohito, certain phrases jump out: Nanjing Massacre, Bataan Death March, Saipan’s Suicide Cliff, Okinawan “compulsory group suicide,” kamikaze. While US political interests in occupied post-war Japan cannot be extracted from the passage of the 1947 Japanese constitution, the pain of these WWII events and the collective trauma of the Japanese people is foundational to the continued support of Article 9 and the origins of the Japanese pacifism movement.

Ratified as part of the post-war constitution written under US occupation, Article 9 outlawed Japan’s use of military “force as a means of settling international disputes” since 1947. In the summer of 2013, however, Abe successfully “reinterpreted” Article 9. The move recognized “self defense” to include “collective self defense,” allowing the military to intervene overseas on behalf of its allies. This relaxation of Article 9 was taken one step further this summer when Abe introduced bills into the national parliament that would allow the government to act on this reinterpretation. These bills sought to revise and add laws in order to formally permit the Self-Defense Force (SDF) to defend Japan’s allies. It was this legislative move that brought 120,000 Japanese citizens onto the streets.

Although ratified almost 70 years ago, Article 9 is firmly situated within Japan’s contemporary national identity, elucidating the expansive outcry against Abe’s recent actions. The immediate post-war period, pacifist movement was a reaction to Japan’s pre-war aggression and was fueled by a desire to move past the atrocities that war had instigated. Although this pacifism was undeniably cultivated under the guiding hand of US General MacArthur and allied military forces, it found support with Japanese legislators and the public. Article 9, enshrined pacifism into the nation’s constitution — recognizing it as a foundational tenet of the new Japanese government and nation.

For many, the existence of nuclear energy within Japan’s borders represents a national amnesia akin to the historical revisionism that has enabled remilitarization.

Many opposition leaders in Japan see Abe’s changes to the Japanese constitution as an extension of his historical revisionism. In “gutting the pacifist spirit and intent of Article 9,” Abe stands at the forefront of a growing Japanese neo-nationalist, pro-militarization movement that seeks to cast doubts on the culpability of Japan in WWII. Abe, for example, has publicly repudiated Japan’s role in institutionalizingcomfort women” during the war — a euphemism for sexual slavery. In recent years, other government officials have gone so far as to deny the Nanjing massacre, and Abe has repeatedly revoked apologies made by previous Prime Ministers for Japan’s role in WWII. By appearing to absolve Japan of its past wartime atrocities, the leaders of the remilitarization effort ignore the need to reconcile Japan’s military past with its growing military future. In the process, they’ve alienated the public and tied remilitarization to a dangerous national amnesia and rejection of WWII atrocities.

In a similar vein, the Japanese public’s concerns about energy policy are rooted in issues of historical remembrance. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial stands just blocks away from where the atomic bomb was detonated on August 6, 1945. Every year on the anniversary of the bombing, the mayor of Hiroshima delivers a peace declaration to “pray for the abolition of nuclear weapons and for lasting world peace.” The memorial marks Hiroshima as the origin of the nuclear proliferation movement; its associated museum simultaneously demonstrates the dangers of nuclear power and, with its yearly peace ceremony, asks visitors to remember the traumas of WWII. But Hiroshima does not stand alone in Japan’s fraught history with nuclear disaster.

On March 11, 2011, the triple-disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear catastrophe added to the nation’s painful nuclear history. Four years later, nearly 250,000 people remain displaced, and the Fukushima “red zone” is riddled with abandoned ghost towns. The demonstrations to end nuclear power in Japan were a reaction to fear of Japan’s continued use of nuclear power, despite the dangers of nuclear energy reliance evoked by the Fukushima meltdown. And these fears are only heightened by Japan’s history.

In the words of A-bomb survivor Keijiro Matsushima, the disaster at Fukushima was “like the third atomic bomb attack on Japan. But this time, we made it ourselves.” The disaster was a reminder of the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the realization that while Japan asked for nuclear non-proliferation worldwide, they had been expanding domestic sources of nuclear power for decades. Before Fukushima, one third of Japan’s energy came from nuclear power. Clearly, the domestic production of nuclear energy differs from the production of nuclear weapons. But since both are derived from nuclear technology and connected to traumas suffered by the Japanese people, they have been conflated in the mind of many of those protesting. To these protestors the existence of nuclear energy within Japan’s borders represents a national amnesia — akin to the historical revisionism that has enabled remilitarization.

To understand the overlapping undercurrent of these demonstrations, just examine the protesters. Hibakusha — as A-bomb survivors are called — have been a driving force in both protests, chanting “Never again; no more Hiroshimas, no more Nagasakis,” referring to both nuclear energy policy and remilitarization. Women from Fukushima Against Nukes brings a similar pacifist message to its antinuclear protests, and the antiremilitarization Article 9 Association is one of the primary organizations against continued nuclear power. The intersecting interests of these advocacy organizations reveal their shared motivation. While the reasons are multifaceted, national memory, or more accurately the fear of national forgetfulness, is driving the Japanese people onto the streets to publicly demonstrate.

Art: Tiffany Pi