The way Shinzō Abe sees it, Japan has learned all the lessons of war. “Now is the time to make a start on carving out a new era beyond the ‘postwar’ era,” the prime minister said in January in his first policy speech before the Diet. “[We will] take on the challenge of building up our nation anew.” As Japan celebrates the seventieth anniversary of the country’s postwar constitution, part of that “new nation-building” means rescripting it; the first order of business is shedding a shameful past.
Since taking office for the second time in 2012, Abe has spearheaded a campaign to revise Japan’s constitution, which has long kept the country from having a full-fledged military. In July’s upper house election, Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) secured the parliamentary supermajority needed to pave the way for a national referendum to amend Article 9, the constitution’s “peace clause.”
Abe, who could become Japan’s longest-running prime minister since World War II, has unleashed a slew of security bills to undermine the constitution and its supporters, while ramping up his call for constitutional reform to allow for offensive military capabilities — most recently, after North Korea launched four ballistic missiles toward Japan, a move seen as a retaliation against joint US–South Korean military exercises in the region.
During his visit to Seoul in March, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson rebuffed China’s call for the US to negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear program, announcing the end of “strategic patience” and a possible “pre-emptive action” against the regime. As tensions escalate between the US and North Korea, as well as with China over islands in the South China Sea — which, according to White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, will “no doubt” be the battleground for America’s next war — reviving Japan’s military has become part of the US’s broader effort to strengthen its foothold in the Asia-Pacific region.
The US’s support for Japan remilitarization — longstanding, and reaffirmed by the Trump administration — has emboldened Abe’s militarism. Last December, his administration approved a record defense budget of $42.5 billion, the fifth consecutive increase during his term. The antiwar demonstrations that saw tens of thousands of people gather in front of the parliament have now largely subsided. And this February, the Abe administration moved to draft its first set of constitutional amendments.
But revising Article 9 is only part of Abe’s grand vision.
The campaign for constitutional reform is a far-right movement decades in the making. Fueled by a nostalgia for military glory, ultra-nationalists have long sought to restore not only Japan’s armed forces, but its “beautiful traditional national character” — everything that the pacifist constitution is not. Drafted under US occupation, the document symbolizes the decline of Japan’s colonial rule and its defeat in the war, a chapter in history the far right desperately wants to expunge.
And Abe does as well. His “new nation” entails silencing witnesses of Japanese war atrocities to lay the groundwork for empire.
Make Japan Great Again
In February, a private kindergarten in Osaka made national headlines after video footage surfaced of schoolchildren singing bizarre military tunes, chanting, “We want China and South Korea, which portray Japan as a villain, to be repentant.” Within days, the school’s rampant racism came to light: one mother told the press her son’s teacher described South Korea as a “dirty place,” and others reported being accused of “having Korean or Chinese ancestors” whenever they challenged school administrators, including its owner, Yasunori Kagoike.
But what propelled the scandal into international headlines was not the school’s prewar curriculum or its unabashed xenophobia, but its connection to Japan’s first lady, Akie Abe. When it came out that she accepted a position as “honorary principal” at a new elementary school owned by Kagoike, the focus quickly fell on her husband. An inquiry into the private elementary school, originally named after Abe, soon revealed that the school had bought government-owned land at a discount, spurring accusations that Abe and his wife helped Kagoike with licensing and land acquisition. Last week, Kagoike testified under oath before the Diet that the first lady secretly donated $9,000 to set up the ultra-nationalist school.
Though the first lady immediately resigned her position at the school and the prime minister continues to deny all charges, Abe’s possible ties to the disturbing strain of nationalism came as a shock to many. But it shouldn’t have.
Along with more than half of the ministers in his cabinet, Abe belongs to the parliamentary league of Nippon Kaigi, an extreme right-wing organization that counts Kagoike as a member. Founded in 1997, Nippon Kaigi is the largest, most powerful conservative group in the country, with nearly 40,000 fee-paying members and 240 local chapters across Japan.
Sometimes compared to the Tea Party movement in the US, the group purports to be a grassroots conservative movement but also boasts over 280 lawmakers — more than a third of the Diet — as members of the group’s parliamentary league. Chief among them are Defense Minister Tomomi Inada (who has come under fire for defending the ultra-nationalist kindergarten); former prime minister Tarō Asō; and Abe, who serves as the group’s “special adviser.”
Much like the far-right movements taking hold across the world, Nippon Kaigi’s vision of the future lies in the past. In its mission statement, the group laments the withering patriotism of postwar society:
In the shadow of great economic prosperity, the traditional culture cultivated and taught by our predecessors have been lost, our brilliant history was forgotten and humiliated, and the spirit of defending our nation and fulfilling our societal duty was lost.
But whereas Tea Partiers exalt the US constitution, Nippon Kaigi deplores their country’s postwar document. According to right-wingers, the pacifist constitution and its “liberal” values fundamentally changed Japanese society. And they aren’t entirely wrong.
When the constitution was drafted under Allied occupation in 1946, its American writers — many of whom were influenced by the New Deal — put together a new founding document more expansive than their own.
One such writer was Beate Sirota Gordon, a twenty-two-year-old tasked with writing the human rights section. A daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Gordon authored provisions that enshrined equality under the law regardless of “race, creed, sex, social status or family origin,” outlining, for the first time, civil rights for women. The constitution also included protections against unlawful detention and child labor, and guaranteed the right to participate in a trade union.
Yet contrary to the far right’s accusations, the postwar constitution wasn’t an exclusively American creation. As historian Eiji Takemae has documented, the “momentum” for constitutional revision came from within the country, from the peripheries of power.
During the drafting process, General Douglas MacArthur and his aides sifted through constitutional proposals from individuals and groups outside the Japanese cabinet, including the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the Constitutional Research Association, a grassroots organization of scholars that included Ouchi Hyoe, a Marxist economist who had been dismissed from Tokyo Imperial University for his radical views. While right-of-center Liberals and Progressives advocated keeping the emperor in power, left-wing groups called for an end to imperial rule and proposed “an extensive bill of human and social rights.”
Far from being “imposed” on the Japanese people, a recurring talking point in Abe’s speeches, the constitution represented a convergence of leftist sentiments that had been brewing in the country under imperial rule. “Powerful pressures for a fundamental overhaul of the national charter were building at the grassroots,” writes Takemae. “The mass media gave extensive coverage to many of these [proposals], reflecting a new popular commitment to change.”
It’s exactly that change which Japan’s ultra-nationalists find objectionable. For them, the postwar constitution came to embody what Nippon Kaigi calls “self-destructive history”: all of a sudden, the prewar narrative of military glory was replaced with a pledge to renounce war forever, a perpetual reminder of Japan’s defeat and the end of its colonial empire. And even worse, the constitution had empowered a new class of dissidents bent on exposing the country’s skeletons.
In the years immediately after the war, hopes for a flourishing democracy were dashed. Fearing the spread of communism, the Truman administration halted prosecutions of Japanese imperialists charged with committing war crimes under the US occupation and released them as part of a scheme to build Japan into a “conservative, anti-Communist bastion.” In the 1950s and ’60s, the CIA funded the Liberal Democratic Party to infiltrate socialists, bolstering the conservative party’s hold on Japanese politics.
Among those released under the occupation was Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s paternal grandfather, who led the LDP and became prime minister in 1957. Kishi oversaw Manchuria’s industrial development, drafting a forced labor policy that brutalized Chinese workers to channel profits to capitalists back home. As prime minister, Kishi earned the nickname “America’s favorite war criminal” for his pro-America leanings — he ratified a revised version of the US-Japan Security Treaty, which allowed the US to set up military bases across the country in return for defending Japan.
It might be said that the far right’s crusade began with Kishi, who fiercely opposed the postwar constitution. He argued for amending Article 9, calling Japan’s rearmament “necessary” for the country to “finally move out of the post-war era and for Japanese people to regain their self-confidence and pride as Japanese.”
But Kishi’s dream of reviving the military dissolved amid a wave of antiwar sentiment. Bilateral talks to revise the US-Japan Security Treaty sparked a series of massive demonstrations — thousands of students stormed the Diet — that eventually forced Kishi to resign right after signing the accord in 1960.
As the Vietnam War raged to its west, 1960s Japan saw the blossoming of a counterculture and a constellation of revolutionary groups that came to be known collectively as the New Left. Diverging from the old left’s establishment politics and its emphasis on peace and order, the new generation of activists embraced an anti-imperialist politics that underscored the interconnectedness of state violence and violence abroad, of war and empire.
But as the turbulent decade came to a close, the New Left took on a darker tinge. Clashes between riot police and students grew more violent, and the movement dispersed into warring factions rife with internal conflicts. In 1972, it came out that the United Red Army — a fringe group of ultra-leftists — had beat and lynched twelve of its own members.
The violence that plagued the New Left in its waning years did not, however, mark the end of anti-imperialist resistance; it simply changed hands. Seeing the way militarism and violent masculinity were reproduced in the very movement meant to dismantle them, radical feminists in the New Left began to challenge their male counterparts’ misogyny and, more saliently, the mainstream narrative of anti-imperialist resistance itself.
In Scream from the Shadows, a seminal book chronicling the women’s liberation movement known as “Uman Ribu,” Setsu Shigematsu describes how ribu put forth a “self-critical anti-imperialist discourse” that went beyond the framework of its predecessors. “As part of the heritage of the New Left, many ribu activists emerged with a clear critique of the violence of US imperialism and Japan’s strategic geo-political positioning,” writes Shigematsu. “It was ribu’s confrontational stance with the gendered violence of imperialism that distinguished its critique from other leftist groups.”
Crucially, the movement also began constructing solidarity on a transnational basis, recognizing that the liberation of Japanese women is inextricably tied to the liberation of colonized women.
An Alternative History
Backlash came with a vengeance. Beginning in the mid-1990s, conservative politicians and far-right groups began accusing feminists of being communist sympathizers using “gender” to subvert Japanese tradition. “Feminism and its gender-free movement is working to undermine Japanese culture and to lower our moral standards,” Michiyoshi Hayashi, a professor at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University and a member of Nippon Kaigi, wrote in 2002. “Formerly the Marxists, feminists now emerge as the power that will destroy our nation.”
When the cabinet passed the Gender Equality Law in 1999, Nippon Kaigi fought to overturn the bill, which included measures to expand women’s political participation and eliminate violence against women, as well as constitutional provisions that guarantee gender equality. According to Jennifer Robertson, far-right groups attacked everything from “sex education” and “gender-mixed roll calls in schools” to “nontraditional family structures” and “LGBT rights,” all symptoms of what they considered “extremist thought” (“kageki”). In 2005, the LDP commissioned an investigation into “extreme sex education” and “gender-free education,” with none other than Shinzō Abe, then cabinet secretary, presiding as chair.
In an effort to stifle radical feminism and other “destructive” ideologies, the far right launched a campaign to restore “moral education” in schools. Nippon Kaigi, along with conservative groups like the Japanese Society for New Textbook Reform, lobbied to remove Japanese war crimes from school textbooks and replace them with patriotic history. In 2007, under Abe’s first term as prime minister, the Ministry of Education ordered textbook publishers to omit passages that mentioned the Japanese Imperial Army forcing Okinawans to commit mass suicide during the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest World War II battles between Japan and the US.
The government’s current curriculum guidelines, revised under the Abe administration in 2014, require geography and history textbooks to describe Takeshima and Senkaku Islands — contested islands at the center of Japan’s land disputes with South Korea and China — as Japanese territory. Such claims abet Abe’s plan to remilitarize the country under the guise of “national security.”
Over the years, right-wing historians have also demanded the extrication of any reference to the 150,000 to 400,000 women and girls who were coerced into sexual slavery under Japanese rule, euphemistically called “comfort women.” In January, Prime Minister Abe urged South Korean officials to take down a bronze statue of a girl dedicated to “comfort women” that protesters had placed in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan.
Just as Texas textbooks describe African slaves as “workers,” the far right asserts the women — from China, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other occupied territories in Southeast Asia — were “simply prostitutes.” Mark Driscoll, in his book Absolutely Erotic, Absolutely Grotesque, gives a different account:
[M]ilitary and private proprietors of comfort stations, or rape rooms, profited handsomely on women’s and girl’s forced labor . . . women were often raped twenty-five to thirty-five times a day (endangering their health and life) and occasionally committed suicide.
Japan’s history of sexual slavery belies the far right’s claim that the nation’s wealth and expansion came courtesy of its imperialist founding fathers’ “brilliant innovation.” Rather, the nation was built off the labor of hundreds of thousands of women kidnapped and sold across the Asia-Pacific, including over one hundred thousand Japanese women.
For Abe, this battle against history is deeply personal. In his 2006 autobiography, Towards a Beautiful Country, Abe recalls his childhood memories of his paternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi. “Some people used to point to my grandfather as a ‘Class-A war criminal suspect and I felt strong repulsion,” he writes. “Because of that experience, I may have become emotionally attached to ‘conservatism.’”
Under Barack Obama, the focus of US foreign policy shifted from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific in what’s been called the “Pacific pivot.” The Trump administration — which has requested a $54 billion increase in military spending even as it seeks cuts to education, environmental protection, and housing funding at home — appears to support the same recalibration.
The US has continued to build up its military presence in the region with the help of its two allies, Japan and South Korea, the first two countries James Mattis visited as defense secretary. Desperate to recast Japan as an “equal partner” to the US and demand its share in the empire, Abe has become America’s ultimate sidekick.
In the wake of the 2011 earthquake and the subsequent nuclear disaster in Fukushima, antiwar demonstrations galvanized tens of thousands of people against Japanese militarism. Yet the movement, emerging largely as a reaction to Abe’s security bills, is struggling to sustain itself.
If the trajectory of Japan’s postwar imperialism offers any lesson for resistance, it’s that the moment calls for more than just a “peace” movement. With the Abe administration reaching for empire, a movement without an anti-imperialist framework is ill-equipped to challenge the far-right’s re-militarization campaign. Fortunately, while the Japanese left struggles to regroup, a vibrant anti-imperialist movement is taking place where empire is most salient.
When Abe visited the Philippines to meet with President Rodrigo Duterte in January, dozens of Filipino women gathered in front of the Japanese embassy in Manila, a city where the Imperial Japanese Army once massacred upwards of one hundred thousand civilians. The demonstrators, many of them survivors of Japan’s sexual slavery, held up signs that read, “No to Resurgence of Japanese Militarism” and “No to US-Japan militarism in the Asia-Pacific,” referring to the country’s history of double-colonization by Japan and the US.
“Abe disregards Article 9 and condones Japanese people to participate in historical erasure,” said Ritchelda Extremadura, executive director of the anti–sexual violence group Lila Pilipina, as she stood among survivors, microphone in hand. “Abe and Duterte better understand that us grandmothers will not live without justice.”
In Okinawa, the movement against the US’s military presence is coming to a head, with protests breaking out at the construction site of a new base in Henoko. Like the Philippines, Okinawa’s history of violence stemming from Japanese colonialism and US occupation is carved into its movement.
Since the island-wide protests of 1956 that saw 150,000 people demand the return of their ancestral lands, Okinawans have continued to speak out against US and Japanese militarism. Some have even been jailed for it: Hiroji Yamashiro, chairman of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center and a vocal critic of state violence, was detained for over five months without bail, for allegedly cutting a wire fence at one of the anti-base demonstrations. (The Japanese government released Yamashiro in mid-March after the Okinawans’ campaign for his release sparked international criticism.)
In South Korea, the nationwide demonstrations that brought two million into the streets and forced president Park Geun-Hye, daughter of a Cold War military dictator, out of office in February marked a breaking point in the country’s long history of hosting the US military. While corruption scandals lay at the center of the historic demonstrations, the movement also highlights the frustration of a people torn apart by Japanese colonialism and the subsequent Korean War, a proxy war between the US and Soviet Union that ended in a divided Korea.
The US government backed authoritarian governments in South Korea up until the late 1980s and has kept its hand in national politics ever since. Under the Obama administration, the US pushed for South Korea’s deployment of THAAD — an anti-ballistic missile system manufactured in the US — and the pro-US Park administration agreed to the plan last summer.
As the nation prepares for May’s presidential election — which could bring left-leaning figures to power — many South Koreans are opposing THAAD’s deployment out of fear that it could forestall any chances of reunifying Korea, whose families have been long separated by war. Women are at the forefront of this fight; mothers, farmers, and women activists have led protests and boycotts against the Lotte group — the country’s fifth largest conglomerate — for backing THAAD.
The impeachment of South Korea’s right-wing president has also invigorated calls to renegotiate the “comfort-women accord,” a deal signed under the Park administration that sought to settle the contested history of Japan’s sexual slavery. The bilateral agreement, encouraged by the US for its “strategic benefit,” culminated in Japan’s “final and irreversible” payment of $8.3 million and an “apology,” both of which fell short of the survivors’ long-standing demands for formal reparations and admittance of legal responsibility in war crimes. When Abe ordered the removal of the bronze statue commemorating “comfort women” outside the Japanese consulate in February, young students camped out in freezing temperatures to guard it overnight.
In her 1995 essay “Your Comfort vs. My Death,” feminist theologian Chung Hyun Kyung describes the narrative of “comfort women” as the “root story” for Korean women. In telling the story of Noh Soo-Bock, a survivor of Japan’s sexual enslavement, Kyung finds the seed of resistance: “[Soo-Bock’s] mere survival from sexual slavery to the Japanese military is itself a legacy of victory in the history of Korean women. . . . She brought her own lotus flower to bloom out of her suffering. . . . What I know is she cut the vicious cycle of violence and revenge with her power, which I cannot easily name. . . . Her survival is her liberation.”
As anti-imperialist movements gain momentum in colonized spaces, the prospect of transnational solidarity is palpable. And that’s exactly what is needed. The revival of a racist, patriarchal Japan — eager to relive its glory days through war — can only be countered by a resistance movement beyond borders, rooted in shared struggle.