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Islamic State Killings Pit Japan's Right Against Left in Battle Over Pacifist Constitution

For nearly 70 years, Japan's constitution was understood to grant it the right of self-defense at home while forbidding military action overseas — but this could soon change.

by Joseph George and Sebastian Stein
Mar 6 2015, 7:50pm

Photo by Ty Demura/VICE News

The brutal beheadings of Japanese nationals Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa by the Islamic State (IS) in January have shocked the island nation and lent momentum to an effort to expand the limitations imposed on its constitution and military after its defeat by the United States in World War II.

"I am infuriated by these inhumane and despicable acts of terrorism," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a statement condemning the killings. "I will never forgive these terrorists. I will work with the international community to hold them responsible for their deplorable acts."

Leftists in Japan fear that the incident will encourage a departure from the country's pacifist constitution, whose Article 9 states that "the Japanese people forever renounce… the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes." Right-wingers, meanwhile, see an opportunity to allow Japan to assert itself as a truly sovereign state.

For nearly 70 years, Article 9 was understood to grant Japan the right of self-defense at home while forbidding military action overseas. Last July, Abe and his cabinet re-interpreted the provision to accommodate the right of "collective self-defense," allowing it to aid allies who are under attack if the situation threatens Japan's welfare while leaving the stated conditions under which this would be put into effect vague and confusing.

(Photo by Joseph George/VICE News)

Japanese pacifists who were upset by the reinterpretation criticized Abe's government for the maneuver, which required only the support of the prime minister's cabinet appointees. But the dispute has continued as Abe's government prepares to present Japan's parliament with a set of bills whose approval would implement the philosophical change.

The country's right-wing nationalist groups, known as uyoku dantai, have traditionally deplored Article 9 as a symbol of Imperial Japan's postwar emasculation at the hands of the US. They see the executions of Goto and Yukawa as a development that will inevitably affect the status quo.

"The polls in favor of amending the constitution are steadily climbing," Mitsunori Agata, nationalist leader of the Dainippon Shikoukai, told VICE News, referring to a surge in support since the killings. He believes that Abe's hands were tied during the crisis by the limitations imposed by Article 9.

Many uyoku members argue that the pacifist emphasis of Japan's constitution has degraded the nation and robbed its citizens of the ability to defend themselves on their own terms without having to depend on American military support.

Kimura Mitsuhiro, head of the moderate right-wing group Issuikai, went to Jordan during the hostage crisis in order to help negotiate Goto and Yukawa's release. He felt Abe's handling of the crisis was inept.

"While Abe knew that the two hostages were being held by IS, he went over to Egypt and promised $200 million in aid to countries fighting IS. With this action he practically said, 'I don't care if the two hostages die,' " Mitsuhiro proclaimed in a street speech in Shinjuku assailing Abe's handling of the emergency. "During the 72-hour ultimatum from IS before the killings, the Abe government did literally nothing because it didn't have any direct lines to negotiate."

(Photo via al-Hayat)

The uyoku are nationalists and traditionalists, and anti-Islamic tendencies have never figured prominently in their agenda. Shinichi Kamijo of the right-wing group Nippon Okami assured VICE News that anti-Islamic demonstrations of the sort mounted by the Pegida movement in Germany aren't likely to be seen in Japan.

"We don't have that many Muslims here in Japan, so I don't see it as much of a problem," he said. "Our protests mainly revolve around the things that are wrong with our own government."

In Kamijo's view, blame for the killings should be put at the feet of the hostages themselves.

"To be perfectly honest, I'm not surprised at all that they were killed — they were the ones who chose to go to such a turbulent area, after all," Kamijo said. "It actually causes a lot of problems for others. Japan as a country is dragged into the mess. It becomes a media frenzy, and lots of money and taxes get spent. Because we have to try and help them."

"I guess I don't think of them as fellow Japanese," he added. "Their way of thinking is completely different than mine. They leaned more towards the left wing. I don't want anything to do with them."

Koshiro Tanaka. (Photo by Ty Demura/VICE News)

Koshiro Tanaka, a karate master and right-wing activist, traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight alongside the mujahideen against the Soviet invasion because he wanted to prove himself in battle against the communists. In his opinion, fighting for one's own beliefs is a basic right, and a constitution that forbids it is unacceptable.

"I always carried around with me two hand grenades," he said — one to kill the people who tried to catch him, and the second one for himself. "If they had an ounce of honor, they would have killed themselves," he added, speaking of Goto and Yukawa. "They tried to make a good living off the war. Goto made a lot of money from his news coverage. How can they expect from the Japanese people to pay $200 million for their ransom, if it was there own fault that they got captured? I think it's embarrassing."

Tanaka believes that a deviation from Japan's traditional values has made it a weak country, and that a constitution that would allow Japan to go to war is a basic right of every nation.

"We just want to be safe," he insisted. "I think a country where you can't do this has something wrong with it."

Japan's yakuza are deeply connected in both their operations and core values to the political right wing. Many of the crime syndicate's members see themselves as soldiers in an unofficial resident army that would take up arms if Japan were ever attacked.

"We're ready to fight, any place, any time," a member of Japan's third-largest yakuza organization told VICE News at a meeting of right-wing nationalists. He asked that his name not be mentioned.

"When I saw the beheadings, I thought, Fuck those guys!" he remarked. "If I saw one of those IS guys on the street, I'd beat the shit out of them. You won't see us killing anyone this way."

The Islamic State has officially targeted Japan in response to Abe's pledging of $200 million in aid to countries that are battling it, but it remains unlikely that it would ever commit terror attacks on Japanese soil.

(Photo by Joseph George/VICE News)

In contrast to the general approval of Abe's reinterpretation of Article 9 among the nation's rightists, thousands of disapproving citizens voiced their objection in street demonstrations.

A rally in July outside of Abe's residence attracted hundreds of thousands of people. This was an extraordinary turnout of for a political protest in Japan, reflecting the passions stirred by the perceived threat to Japanese pacifism. The previous month, ahead of the cabinet's approval, a particularly aggrieved protester set himself on fire at Shinjuku Station.

Abe had originally used the threat posed by territorial disputes with China to justify reinterpretation — a move that the US applauded. But this argument is no longer the focus. Critics of his government accuse him of using the deaths of Goto and Yukawa and the specter of Islamic terrorism to boost Japan's standing on the world stage.

Back in July, Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sofia University in Tokyo, was already thinking beyond China and to the Middle East. Though China was Abe's chief concern, Nakano believed that the US had different motivations for backing reinterpretation.

"They suffer from fiscal deficit, and it's getting harder and harder to waste the lives of young Americans in the Middle East," he said. "So they want Japanese soldiers to risk their lives and die on their behalf."

At a peaceful public vigil for Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa in Tokyo last month, people could be seen holding "I am Kenji" signs, echoing the slogan "Je suis Charlie" slogan widely adopted after the Paris terror attacksin January. Minoru Ide, a Japanese anti-fascist and one of the organizers of the event, told VICE News that he is convinced that Abe will use the recent killings to push his agenda for Japanese re-militarization.

"The Abe government is trying to use it to turn us into a nation with the power of collective self-defense," he said. "We'll be able to go to war in other countries… This is very dangerous."

His sentiment was shared by many of the rally's participants, more than a few of which held up signs declaring, "I'm not Abe."

Polls have shown that a majority of Japanese citizens do not approve of the changes pushed by the prime minister, yet his government enjoys the support of the majority. As the country's lawmakers discuss the details of how to implement the doctrine of collective self-defense, the question is how far Abe will be able to pursue his proposals.