I live in Japan. In early May, I visited the beautiful port city of Kobe. An initially quiet and lazy afternoon was soon disrupted by hordes of marching protesters. They were shouting in Japanese and holding posters I couldn’t read. There was one particular phrase being shouted repeatedly: “Abe wa yamero”.
They kept coming. And coming. Hundreds of people marching and shouting. Finally I looked up the meaning of “Abe wa yamero”. Translated in English, they were screaming: “Abe, stop it!” Then, it clicked. They were protesting President Abe’s proposed changes to Japan’s pacifist Constitution. They were fighting for peace on May 3, Japan’s Constitution Memorial Day.
Constitution Memorial Day is a national public holiday to celebrate the promulgation of the 1947 Constitution of Japan. Drafted by the allies following Japan’s surrender in World War II, the Constitution ended imperial rule in Japan and brought democracy to the country.
However, the Constitution is most well known for Article 9. Titled, “Renunciation of War”, the provision states in no uncertain terms that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”, and that any “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”.
Article 9 is exceedingly controversial. On the one hand, supporters take pride in its pacifist ideals and never want to see a return to the militaristic and empire-building of Japan in the 1930s. On the other hand, military power and the ability of the nation to protect itself is inextricably tied to state sovereignty. No other country in the world is deprived of this right.
President Abe wants change. By a self-imposed deadline of 2020, he wants to insert an explicit reference to Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (the SDF) in the Constitution. An explicit reference would legitimise the existence of these armed forces. But many argue that the SDF violates Article 9.
Abe faces an uphill battle ahead of him. A January Kyodo news poll found that 54.8 per cent of Japanese respondents are against possible amendment, an increase of 6.2 points from a previous poll. Those in favour of change remained at 33 per cent.
This is a deeply divided public pondering a deeply existential question.
The vast majority of protesters that day in Kobe were older people. For them, Article 9 has shaped their reality since they were children. They grew up in the devastated post-war Japan. They know the consequences of war and the suffering it causes. They are absolutely passionate about peace. And will fight for it.
The instant I realised what the people were marching for, I started beaming. I was filled with immense pride to call this country my current home. I made eye contact with one particular old man. Spontaneously, I fist pumped him. With a giant smile, he fist pumped back. And it was awesome.
Rebekkah Markey-Towler is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.