Tokyo, Japan – They gathered in the drizzling rain in the tens of thousands on Sunday to make their objections heard to new security laws that would allow the military to deploy overseas for the first time since the end of World War II.
It was one of the largest protests in recent Japanese history as ordinary citizens raised their voices in defiance while surrounding the Diet, the nation’s parliament.
The contentious issue that has mobilised such opposition is a series of national security bills drafted by the conservative administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
For the Abe government and its allies, the laws are officially designated as the “Legislation for Peace and Security”. Opponents, however, described them as the “War Bills”.
Organisers estimated120,000 people gathered outside of parliament, while police put the number at about 30,000.
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Abe and his allies intend to fundamentally shift the nation from the path of peaceful development that it has pursued in the 70 years since the end of the war in 1945. Under a pacifist constitution drafted by the US, Japan is barred from using force to resolve conflicts, except in cases of self-defence.
Among the crowd of protesters on Sunday was Toshiro Ueyanagi, a lawyer representing the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.
“This is a very significant bill indeed,” Ueyanagi told Al Jazeera. “If it is enacted, the nature of the Japan Self-Defense Forces will be comprehensively altered. In other words, it would then become possible for them to engage in overseas military actions.”
But some analysts have questioned whether or not passage of the legislation into law is all that significant.
Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus, argued in a commentary in The Diplomat that legal technicalities have not exercised a huge influence on Japan’s defence policy in the past, and are unlikely to do so in the future.
“Unless there is a major upheaval in the region – such as a conflagration between China and the American Alliance – Japan is unlikely to stray far from the path it has long followed,” Dujarric concluded.
The prime minister himself has fed public fears of engaging in future military action through his long career of making statements that express discontent with mainstream Japanese views on the nation’s war history and the post-1945 pacifist ethos.
Notable in this respect is Abe’s well-known catchphrase: “escape from the post-war regime” – a concept that directly suggests a fundamental change in the national direction.
For their part, Japanese opposition political parties, overwhelmingly outnumbered in Diet seats, understand they have no ability on their own to prevent passage of the security bills.
Instead, the opposition has used televised committee debates to punch holes in the government’s logic and whip up enough popular dissent to induce second thoughts within the ruling coalition.
The opposition parties’ strategy has succeeded in the sense that they have decisively won the immediate public debate.
The most recent All-Nippon News Network poll, for example, found only 11 percent of the public agreed with the Abe administration that the bills should be enacted at the current juncture.
This is compared to 22 percent who want the bills scrapped altogether, and 64 percent who say the process has been rushed and the government should hold off on enactment during the current Diet session, which ends on September 27.
But winning over the public majority will likely prove insufficient to the task. The opposition parties’ failure is that Japan’s ruling coalition has remained united even in the face of the escalating protests and appears entirely willing to pass the legislation without regard for public opinion.
Also quite significant is the fact that while the public agrees with the opposition on the substance of this crucial issue, none of the opposition parties have seen a significant uptick in their own support rates, signalling they remain distrusted and are not viewed as viable alternatives to the incumbent regime.
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As for Abe, he has remained adamantine. At a public lecture in early July, he was perhaps a bit too revealing of his personal thought process on the matter. He made reference to his maternal grandfather whom he reveres, Nobusuke Kishi, a former Class A war crimes suspect and prime minister from 1957 to 1960.
It was Prime Minister Kishi who forced the US-Japan security treaty through the Diet in 1960 in the face of mass protests that, in contrast to the orderliness of today’s Japan, included considerable violence.
Abe hinted at the similarity between his grandfather’s position back then and his own challenge today with the security bills. “My grandfather said that in 50 years, his move would be understood, but only 25 to 30 years later a majority of the public supported the renewal of the US-Japan security treaty.”
Barring a truly transformational event, it is all but certain the Abe government and the ruling coalition will use their majority to pass the security legislation through the Diet in September. The administration appears resolved to do so – even if its public approval rating declines sharply.
What will the tens of thousands of protesters do in response?
An older male demonstrator outside the Diet replied when asked: “Then we will just have to express our feelings at the next parliamentary elections.”
Follow Michael Penn on Twitter: @ShingetsuNews