In Japan, (politely) protesting to preserve a pacifist nation

In a country that hasn’t seen mass protests since the ‘60s, thousands turn up for anti-militarization demonstrations

KYOTO – “Because you won. We lost.”

Our language differences may have led her to speak more bluntly than she’d intended, but this older protester in the Sunday afternoon march through Kyoto’s commercial district made clear to me her assessment of the differences between American and Japanese views of World War II.

“Because you won.”

Japan is in the midst of an extraordinary level of political unrest. Demonstrations like this – tens of thousands of people chanting in the streets of dozens of cities several weekends in a row – haven’t happened since the Vietnam era. Back then the issue was U.S. forces using bases in Japan to strike targets in Southeast Asia.

Seventy years ago, Japan formally surrendered on what President Truman declared V-J Day, for Victory over Japan. During the post-war U.S. occupation, a new Constitution incorporated the pacifist clause known as Article 9. For nearly seven decades, Japan has firmly subscribed to the use of its armed forces solely for self-defense. 

For a significant part of Japan’s population – particularly the graying generation that survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Article 9 must be preserved. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for changes that would allow the armed forces to fight on foreign soil for the first time since World War II. The Lower House of Parliament, known as the Diet, has signed off and the Upper House is expected to within weeks.

That’s what has pulled these protesters into the streets. I encountered them last Sunday in Kyoto, the ancient capital city. Knowing how my own Japanese mother would have objected to public “scenes” like this, I was surprised by the size and intensity of the demonstration. As a resident of Washington, D.C., and a veteran of covering many civil rights demonstrations in the South, I heard some familiar chants. But there were some uniquely Japanese elements: At every traffic light, protesters politely stopped and waited for the police to direct them to pass.

As I pulled out my iPhone to record the scene, I was also surprised by the demographics of the group. I identified only one Gaijin (foreigner) among the protesters. And despite the proud proclamation I heard from several demonstrators that this was a “college student protest” that had young Japanese rappers at the front of the line, most of the marchers were considerably older. When I mentioned to my new friend that anti-war protests in the U.S. are typically led by younger protesters, she gasped in shock. “Why? Why? It’s a surprise! It’s not normal.”

The mix in the Kyoto protest comes about largely because the older generation still has such visceral memories of the war. A poll last month found nearly 70 percent of A-bomb survivors oppose any change to Article 9. And there is still a strong emphasis on social conformity in Japan. College-aged protestors are being warned that their actions “embarrass” their universities, and may threaten their potential for employment after graduation since Japanese labor law can allow for that kind of discrimination.

Still, the protesters keep coming. Though the prime minister’s popularity is sliding, the Upper House vote to approve changes to the military appears to be on track. But the reemergence of mass demonstrations in the country may be a sign that the Japanese are ready to embrace social change too.


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