Why the U.S. Must Keep a Close Eye on Japan

(Toru Hanai/Reuters)

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the grandson of a WWII war criminal, has been no stranger to controversy since he was elected into office in 2006. A few examples of the Prime Minister’s widely criticized moves include: the cabinet appointments of two men who are associated with Japan’s Nazi Party, the appointment of a racist as the head of the National Police Agency and a 2013 speech by Abe’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in which he said:

“Germany’s Weimar Constitution was changed into the Nazi Constitution before anyone knew. It was changed before anyone else noticed. Why don’t we learn from that method?”

Aside from these incidents, there are much deeper concerns about the long-term vision that Prime Minister Abe has for the island nation of Japan.

The most recent cause for concern stems from an announcement made on May 3rd by the Prime Minister, in which he informed the Japanese people on his plans to dismantle Japan’s post-war democratic constitution and replace it with a new one that would have many similarities to the infamous German constitution of the 1930s – which is partially responsible for the rise of the Nazi regime.

Observers will be closely watching to see when exactly Prime Minister Abe will try to replace the country’s current constitution. At an annual meeting for a powerful right wing group known as Nippon Kaigi, which the Prime Minister is a member of, Abe said that he plans on replacing the current constitution with the Nippon Kaigi constitution by the year 2020.

Nippon Kaigi (NK) is Japan’s most powerful conservative right-wing organization. NK is a non-party nationalist group to which its adherents claim to prioritize Japanese international prestige and prosperity, as well as  unifying the country and restoring national pride.

NK has been under intense scrutiny in Japan due to the number of controversial changes they wish to make to the Japanese constitution. Lawrence Repete, an American lawyer and professor based in Japan, highlighted some of these controversial proposals in the Asia-Pacific Journal. Some of the most controversial proposals include:

  • Rejecting the universality of human rights.
    • The focus of the new constitution in regards to human rights would not be based on the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as it currently is. Rather, the new constitution would introduce a unique system of rights based on Japan’s “history, culture and tradition.” Critics are worried because this proposed amendment to the constitution does not specify which elements of Japan’s history, culture and tradition would be implemented in the new system of human rights, potentially resulting in a rollback of human rights
  • Eliminating free speech protection for activities “with the purpose of damaging the public interest or public order, or associating with others for such purposes.”
    • This change in the constitution would give the Japanese government broad discretion to punish those who “might have the purpose” of damaging the “public order.” This would give the government the right to push back on any form of protest or dissent from its people.
  • Giving the Prime Minister the power to declare “states of emergency.”
    • This change in the constitution is one that has observers extremely concerned. Under Article 98, the Prime Minister can declare a state of emergency for a number of reasons including national disasters or security threats from foreign nations. The real concern stems from the last reason for declaring states of emergency that is given which says: “or other emergency situations as designated by law.”
    • Once a state of emergency is declared, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet can issue Cabinet Orders which would have the same effect as laws. This means that laws would not need to go through typical legislative procedures in order to be enforced.

The proposed changes in the constitution by Prime Minister Abe and his political party are just one of the many concerns that observers have regarding the direction of Japan. Another major cause for concern comes from the reintroduction of the Imperial Rescript on Education. This 19th century edict from Imperial Japan was declared null and void in 1948 by Japan’s legislative body after determining that it:

Clearly undermines basic human rights and calls into question Japan’s international fidelity.”

The edict issued in 1890 states that the greatest moral good that a Japanese citizen could achieve was to give their life for the emperor. Later on, during the Second World War, the edict was used to radicalize citizens into committing suicide attacks, which became known as kamikaze. Kamikaze was employed by Japanese pilots to hurl themselves along with their planes towards enemy ships and using small submarines as human torpedoes.he most infamous example happened in the battle for Okinawa in 1945.

Choho Zukeran, who was a schoolboy during the battle, detailed what he was told to do in an interview with The Guardian:

“The army had given us two grenades each. They told us to hurl the first one at the enemy and to use the second one to kill ourselves.”

The battle for Okinawa cost over 200,000 American and Japanese lives. Entire families and communities sacrificed themselves based off the ideology taught in the Imperial Rescript on Education, which Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet have brought back into classrooms across Japan.

In addition to this edict that has been approved to be taught in classrooms, the Abe government has passed a very controversial bill that is vaguely titled, “The Law Regulating and Preparing for Terrorism and Other Organized Crimes.” This harsh conspiracy law gives the government the right to freely penalize anyone if vague conditions are met. The law states that if two or more people take action to prepare for a crime, even if they have not committed a crime, they can be punished.

There is concern that the government will use this law to roll back on civil liberties due to the vagueness of the term “other organized crimes” and the term “preparing” for a crime. What exactly falls under “other organized crime” and what needs to be done for it to be determined that people are “preparing” to commit a crime? The broad language used in this bill could result in massive government overreach.

The Abe administration has argued that the conspiracy bill is necessary in order to prevent terrorist attacks as Japan prepares to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; However, critics have pointed out that the conspiracy bill is reminiscent of the Peace Preservation Laws of 1925 that were meant to fight communism, but ultimately resulted in the surveillance and arrest of Japanese citizens.

Another area of concern is the Security Bill, which the Abe administration quickly rammed through the Japanese legislature. This bill allows Japan to engage in warfare overseas, effectively doing away with Article 9 of the postwar Japanese constitution. Article 9 outlaws the use of military force as a means of resolving international disputes. Specifically, the article states that the Japanese should “forever renounce war.” Article 9 is heavily disputed by Nippon Kaigi. They feel that it is emasculating to Japan and removes Japan from its traditions.

In addition to worrying that the foreign policy implications of Japan t could have a strong military in the near future, observers have also expressed great concern over the “State Secret Act.” Passed in 2013, this law allows authorities to jail government workers who leak state secrets for up to 10 years. Journalists and civilians who leak a state secret, or even ask about a state secret could face up to five years in jail. The most concerning part of this law is that the government is not forced to clarify what exactly constitutes a state secret.

Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet have not yet been able to introduce a massive overhaul of the Japanese constitution. Still, there is growing concern over the obvious trends toward unchecked government rights, the disintegration of human rights and privacy for Japanese citizens and the potential for instability in the region as Abe continues to vouch for a Japanese military force. The most telling statistic that reveals the negative trend in Japan comes from the World Press Freedom rankings. In 2011, Japan was #11 on this list. As of 2016, the Japanese dropped all the way down to #72.

It is no surprise that the United States has not been an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Abe and his very controversial moves. Japan is the United States’ 4th largest trading partner and is their largest military partner. The U.S. has over 54,000 military personnel stationed in Japan, more so than any other country. The proximity of the U.S. bases in Japan to adversaries, such as China and North Korea, makes it obvious why the U.S. has not been critical of the Japanese government.

Although they do not want to put a strain on their strong military and economic relationship, the U.S. should be concerned about Japan increasing its military strength in light of the instability surrounding North Korea, uncertainty in a Duterte-led Philippines and rising tensions in the South China Sea. Although Asian issues have hardly been prominent in the American media since the election of Donald Trump, it is very important that the administration begins to discuss Japan’s future and the future of the security situation in the region.


Daniel Alonso is the founder and contributor of Politicsay. Daniel graduated from Florida International University with a double major in Political Science and International Relations, as well as a certificate in National Security Studies. Daniel focuses on American Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and Human Rights Issues.

Daniel Alonso