Academics join battle against anti-pacifist policies

Breaking with their conventional reserve on political matters, Japanese academia is playing a leading role in the country’s growing public protests against a set of new security bills that will pave the way to end the country’s post World War II pacifist policy, which is also enshrined in the constitution.

The bills will be debated in the upper house next Wednesday.

“University professors cannot sit on the sidelines anymore. Academia has joined hands with students to fight for liberal democracy in Japan,” said Professor Koichi Nakano, an internationally respected political scientist at Sophia University, Tokyo and a key member of the academic movement.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative, wants to expand the role of Japanese troops to allow Japan to provide support for foreign military forces, such as those of the US, in combat roles in overseas conflicts. One of the bills would allow the right for Japan to aid an ally under attack even if Japan is not in danger, which is currently banned under the post-war constitution.

In June academics launched the Association of Scholars Opposed to the Security-related Bills in which top professors joined hands to pledge to work towards scrapping the bills. The organisation, which holds public gatherings alongside students and others to garner support against the bills, now has more than 13,000 registered members.

“Should this legislation pass, there is a very real danger that Japan could become a party to hostilities and the SDF [Japan’s Self-Defense Forces] an army of aggression in violation of international law,” the association said in an appeal to members of the Diet or parliament.

In its statement in June, the organisation which noted that scholars “carry a special historical burden” in that “universities collaborated with Japan’s war of aggression and sent numerous students off to battle”, said it was “appalled” that the unconstitutional legislation “is even being deliberated by the Diet”.

Abe argues an active international presence for Japan is necessary to meet new geopolitical developments such as the rise of China's military power, but the public, still harbouring memories of the tragic war-time military administration, is wary and frightened of a possible wider military role.

Legal experts including Supreme Court judges have already called the proposed law changes unconstitutional.

Massive protests

Protests grew in July when the government pushed the bills through a 15 July plenary session of the lower house. The bills will now be debated in the upper house on 16 September, it was announced last week.

Students and academics also held a massive demonstration in front of the Diet on 30 August, attended by a reported 120,000 protesters. It was organised by the Student Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, or SEALDS, a student organisation that launched in May.

SEALDS now has branches all over Japan, but the role of university intellectuals in the public movement has raised the profile of the opposition message and is viewed as a crucial step in its development.

Public protests by academics are rare. The last time such massive protests by academics and students were recorded was in the 1960s when universities were a hotbed of activism against a move by the then government led by Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, to revise the peace clause.

The mostly student protesters, sometimes violent and closely linked to left-leaning parties and labour union politics, were defeated and since then public demonstrations against government had been low key.

Universities in particular have gained a reputation for toeing the official line. Against this background, Nakano says that the decision by professors to speak out and work with students represents a landmark change.

“In the past protests, the movement had a political and violent bent. This time, what is happening on the ground is spontaneous and we are speaking out together. There are no leaders or violence,” he said.

Professor Mari Osawa, director of Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo, said the involvement of academics has led to an increasing number of students and professors joining SEALDS and the Association of Scholars Opposed to the Security-related Bills. The ongoing process to change pacifist policies is the greatest threat to the liberal democracy in the country and thus academic freedom, he said.

Bills pushed through

The ruling coalition has a majority in both houses, and experts say the unpopular bills could be voted through, despite the lack of public hearings, normally held to hear opinions from experts and others.

Opposition parties are accusing the government of bulldozing the bills through parliament and point to widespread public unease and protests. Academics and student groups are particularly concerned about the lack of transparency of the parliamentary process, arguing that there has not been enough open debate or public hearings.

Some media reports said academics were reporting a reluctance to speak out against the government for fear of a backlash or retribution afterwards.