In his customary New Year’s address, Japanese Emperor Akihito called for the “peace of the people of our country and the world.”
These seemingly innocuous words belie the deep division among Japan’s leaders today over the definition and future direction of their nation. With themes redolent of classical Greek drama, this chasm is best understood on an imaginary stage. On one side of this figurative platform are those who favor maintaining the so-called peace clause of Japan’s post-1945 constitution, Article 9, which renounces Japan’s sovereign right to wage war. On the other side are those who argue that Japan must become what they call a “normal nation”—meaning one that can fight wars against other nations.
Ironically, to many Japanese, wartime Emperor Hirohito’s direct descendants, his son, Emperor Akihito, and grandson, Crown Prince Naruhito, best represent the antiwar chorus in this unfolding play. Constitutionally barred from political action, Japan’s current emperor has devoted his life, since ascending the throne in 1989, to quietly atoning for atrocities Japanese troops committed in his father’s name during the Second World War. For his part, Naruhito pointedly urges the need to “look back humbly on the past.”
Necessarily understated, such behavior radically contradicts that of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, darling of the minority of Japanese who dream of their nation’s vanished imperial grandeur and long to break free from what they view as the “masochistic” shackles imposed under American occupation by constitutional limitation. Abe himself positively—and routinely—invokes the memory of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a member of the Hideki Tojo cabinet that ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. As Minister of Commerce and Industry from 1941–1944, Kishi directed Japan’s totalitarian policies in Manchuria for which he was ultimately imprisoned as a Class A war criminal.
Leaving this imaginary stage and entering the real streets of Japan, a group of college students has given most traction to the cause of maintaining Japan’s antiwar international posture. Currently reorganizing themselves for long-term political involvement, the SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy) worked tirelessly throughout 2015–2016 to raise consciousness among Japanese and remind them, in ways not seen since the 1960s anti-American militarism protests, of the social value of exercising their constitutionally grounded right to dissent.
Organizing first in 2014 to protest special secrecy laws, SEALD members took Japan by storm. Aki Okuda, Mana Shibata, Nobukazu Honma, and a core group of twenty fellow Tokyo undergrads used their visibility as young, fashionable protestors to implore citizens to stand up and fight for their country’s future. Conscious that today’s Japanese society collectively eschews violent outbursts, the SEALDs modeled their protests differently from that of the student leaders of the 1960s, around whom tear gas and riot police swirled. During the 2015–2016 antiwar protests they led throughout Japan, the SEALDs made clear that dissent did not require trashing the nation’s laws. Instead, they urged fellow citizens to “protect” their constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms in ways that cleverly reclaimed the notion of protection from those who were using it to justify a more warlike stance for the country. The SEALDs approach resonates even more now with President Donald Trump’s egregious assault on the U.S. Constitution.
The SEALDs disbanded in August 2016 in order to resume their education. As they calculate their political future, their message remains clear: preserve Article 9 as fundamental to Japan’s identity.
Alexis Dudden is professor of history at the University of Connecticut. She has written extensively about Northeast Asia for publications such as Dissent and the Huffington Post, and her books include Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States (Columbia University Press, 2014).