The Modern Anti-War Movement in Japan

According to twenty-year-old university student and anti-war activist, Meek Mizoi, “Japan hasn’t killed anyone overseas and no Japanese have been killed in war” (McCurry) over the last 70 years. As a key ally of the United States during the Cold War, this is an incredible feat. Japan does maintain a defense force but remains prohibited from deploying this force overseas by their pacifist constitution. In order to play a larger role in global politics, members of the Japanese political elite have attempted to amend the constitution to redefine and clarify the principles of Japanese pacifism. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party created the ministry of defense as part of his effort to expand the defense force’s rules of engagement. In a world with prevalent terrorist organizations like ISIS kidnapping Japanese citizens and with a US president who may rescind the nuclear umbrella, Abe argues Japan can no longer look to the past but rather the future when examining its pacifist mandate. For some this future is seen as a seat on the UN Security Council and for others, it is a future that harkens back to undemocratic imperialism and tragedy. This is not the first time the Japanese government has attempted to reinterpret their constitutional mandate to peace. As a result, anti-war and anti-nuclear movements have existed in Japan since the end of US occupation. The modern Japanese peace movement draws heavily on Japan’s anti-war identity constructed during the post-war period and visual-cultural symbols in the to fight to preserve principles of peace.

Japan’s pacifism was enshrined in its post-war constitution, approved in 1946 by the National Diet. The constitution, modeled after the Untied States, was created during the US occupation of Japan under General Douglas MacArthur. According to segments of the Japanese population today, MacArthur, against the will of the Japanese people, imposed the principles of pacifism on the constitution in an effort to subjugate the Japanese nation. Others believe, Prime Minister Kijūrō Shidehara brought the idea to MacArthur to set Japan on a new path. Regardless of the truth, the legitimacy of the constitutionally mandated principle of pacifism for all Japanese governments is questioned. Both the preamble of the constitution and Article 9 articulate these principles of peace. The preamble recognizes every individual’s “right to live in peace, free from fear and want” (Ogawa 373) — a recognition of the post-war narrative that the Japanese government violated the sovereignty of the Japanese people by wrongly and treacherously leading them into war. While the preamble provides a right to the Japanese people, the ideological nature of the language does not directly restrain the Japanese government’s ability to raise an army or go to war. The most contentious aspect of Japanese constitutional pacifism lies in Article 9. Article 9 contains only two short paragraphs but those “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation,” (Ogawa 373) and state “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” (Ogawa 373) by the Japanese state. In accordance with Article 9, Japan cannot maintain a standing army or utilize war to settle international disputes. In order to uphold the aspiration of world peace, Japan renounces the belligerency of the state and restricts the legality of military conflict to the pure defense of Japanese territory. No other constitution in the world goes so far to enshrine pacifism within government or constituted a more dramatic break with recent nationalist history.

Japan’s constitution, much like its counterpart in the United States, has not remained static. While the potential to amend the Japanese constitution exists (as laid out by Article 96), the language of the original constitution has never been changed. Rather, the constitution has evolved through an ever-shifting process of interpretation. Originally, Article 9 of the constitution was strictly interpreted. Prime Minster Shidehara and others acted on the belief  “states are the guardians of moral standards” (Deutsche 5) and therefore should be held to an absolute standard. With “the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (Ogawa 374) fresh in their memory, the constitution concludes there are no just wars and the government should not be given an army if it cannot fight a just war; this would conflict with its status of a guardian of moral standards. Yet, with the emergence of the Korean conflict and pressure from the United States, this strict, principally required interpretation was abandoned for a more pragmatic, if unpopular, middle ground. Japan officially remilitarized in 1954 with the creation of the federal Self-Defense Forces. Previous pressure from the US brought Japan indirectly into the Korean war effort — a partial reversal of its renouncement of war as a tool to settle international disputes. Japan supplied and hosted US troops throughout the effort and eventually at the behest of the United States, in need of strong regional allies in the fight against communism, created a standing army (Ogawa 374). Subsequently, Japan signed the U.S.–Japan Security Treaty, a further disintegration of its pacifist ideals. The Japanese supreme court upheld the constitutionality of this militaristic treaty as well as the creation of the Self- Defense Forces. Yet, this reinterpretation of the constitution only calls for a standing army equipped to engage in self-defense activities, maintain a deterrent presence, and host US troops.

For more modern Japanese governments, the mere reinterpretation or loose adherence to Article 9 remains dangerously constraining and inhibitory. During the 1980s, the Japanese government spent the third most percentage of its GDP on defense expenditures, using special classification techniques to appear to adhere to a one percent GDP limit. With the common acceptance of such expense, the political elite of Japan began to debate the amendment of Article 9. The government saw the article as cumbersome and a hindrance to the steady expansion of the Self-Defense forces and its growing responsibility for regional security — both of which had already abandoned the constitution’s pacifist ideals. Yet, for a majority of the populace, the “continuity between the atomic bombing and current situations of war” (Deutsche 14) keep them starkly opposed to any effort to amend Article 9. With backlash at the polls, no government has successfully garnered the two-thirds Diet majority and initiated the required popular referendum to amend Article 9. The support for pacifist principles and the backlash to any amendment extend out of Japan’s post-war narrative —  “this [lack of support for an amendment] is because the military people made a stupid war” (Hajimu 567). The fear of manipulation by a nationalist government or a powerful and propaganda fueled military continues to persist because many Japanese believe these factors precipitated atomic destruction and decades of prideful, pointless loss of life — pacifism out of distrust and uncertainty not out of idealism. The potential language of Article 9 amendments under Abe expand the concept of self-defense to align with the United Nations right to collective self-defense. Without the clear right for Japan’s Self-Defense forces to come to the aid of an attacked ally, Japan could not, for example, shoot down a missile headed for the US, Abe said (Hajimu 567). Abe hopes to enshrine collective self-defense in Article 9 and thereby also expand Japanese involvement in the war against terror and UN peacekeeping missions. Without an amendment, Japan’s role on the world stage as a supporter of peace may falter.

Since Article 9’s creation, the development of Japanese anti-war and anti-nuclear movements have paralleled the evolution of the official interpretation of Japan’s pacifist principles. Early anti-nuclear and anti-militarization movements grew from Marxist and leftist ideologies. Ironically, such movements triggered broad support for a national defense force — the fear of communist civil unrest provided the state a prime opportunity to justify the trade of principles for security. While early youth mobilization and protest often stemmed from radicalism, the roots of strong anti-war culture were already embedded in the broader society. Early post-war culture was  “born directly out of the experience of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing” (Hein 291) and thereby solidified genuine pacifist principles in the dogma of daily life — an embodiment of the right to live in peace. The dual victimization narrative crystallized by the Tokyo Trials reinforced that the blame for total atomic devastation fell both on the government and the principles of war. “For the Japanese people, pacifism became a culturally embedded concept that has define their social and political lives during the post-World War II era” (Ogawa 373). Social interaction and political power structures sprung from this broad pacifist identity. The firsthand horrendous war memories of the Japanese people created an identity rooted in the right to live in peace. A right that if violated would lead to a repetition of a vivid, recent, and unlivable past. While anti-war protests were rooted in ideological organizing, the utter cynicism of anti-nuclear and anti-war sentiments was deeply rooted in cultural memory and identity.

The modern anti-war and anti-nuclear movements of Japan cannot draw on firsthand atomic memories or ideology. Instead, the contemporary youth have turned to modern culture and that still embedded and inherited pacifist identity. Current protests represent a “new form of pragmatic, convenient anti-militarism” (Hein 296), one that does not demand political power. In contrast to violent, persistent, and anarchical protesters of the past, the protests of today “incorporate more cultural practices such as art, music, dance and performance” (Yoshitaka 17). Some have criticized this cultural, pragmatic form of modern protesting as containing a lack of courage and will power. Yet, the ideological groups of the past cannot muster strong support compared to the thousands who march with this new cultural wave. Music performances and entertainment mix with a political message and an expression of the voice of the youth. In an age of technology and so-called hashtag participation, any effort — no matter its relativity to the political cause — which garners protesters and support for a political movement are justified. Will such support be sustained? That is the enduring question of the cultural wave of anti-war and anti-nuclear protests. The use of culture to supplant the role of ideology in anti-war protests parallels the utilization of an embedded pacifist identity built upon the memories of the first generation of anti-nuclear Japanese. Without the firsthand memories of nuclear devastation, the youth build upon their inherited identity by drawing upon the constitution’s preamble to reframe the current government’s amendment efforts in terms of domestic nuclear disasters  (Yoshitaka 20). The cultural tools utilized by anti-war protesters draw heavily on visual culture — in print, in space, in daily life, and on the news — to reinvigorate an anti-war identity and convey a message of political dissent.

Without the vicarious memories of their ancestors, the anti-war and anti-nuclear movement in Japan would appear and be as effective as those found in other Western countries, like the United States or the United Kingdom. Article 9 is both a result of and a reinforcer of anti-war sentiment. Those Japanese most devastated by the nuclear incidents in Japan  “reaffirmed their belief in it through their daily actions” (Ogawa 384) — this belief being one against the use of nuclear weapons and against war by the government. Their existence, their survival and the stories they lived and passed on each day formed a culture united against war; one which championed the principle the next generation should live better than the last. Like the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Second World War in general, the 4.11 disaster “drastically altered everyday life” (Ogawa 2016). This infringement on the right to live in peace free from a fear of nuclear contamination stated in the preamble of the constitution sparked a new generation to follow the path of early anti-war culture and reconstruct identities based on this new memory. This memory formed around the stark visual images permeating the news and daily life at the time — politics in the minds of youth began to have a direct impact on their daily life. With anti-nuclear protests, a new anti-war sentiment arose as the disaster and new memory recalled the nuclear bombs and victimization caused by state-sponsored war and past weapons of destruction and injustice (Ogawa 2016). The medium shapes the message and this new wave of pacifist principles comes as a result of cultural-visual mediums reimagining World War Two memories in manga but also ingraining pacifism into space and daily life to prop up a waning constitutional mandate.

While nationalist politicians re-envision history in the writing of official textbooks, the growing popularity of war genres in manga provide historical continuity. Manga is comparable to comic books in the United States. For foreigners, manga has a particular style but for Japanese the medium encompasses hundreds of literary genres and enjoys widespread popularity. While in the United States war fantasy is often blamed for societal violence,  Japanese war manga creators see their role as drastically different. For scholar Matthew Penney, war fantasy creators believe they “have a responsibility to investigate and to know the reality that people faced” (46) during the Second World War. While a medium ripe for celebrating Japanese imperialist soldiers and stoking imperial passion, these creators use the medium to show fans the horrors and emotions of war. These empathetic narratives revitalize the memories of past generations and spark anti-war sentiment. War fantasy may be thrilling but by investigating and conveying the realities of the conflicts some Japanese wish to overlook, these creators wield a visual medium to perpetuate the truth, the consequences, and the manipulation of war (Penny 48). While static visual images play a role in maintaining anti-war sentiments, film and animation adaptations play a similar role. While modern anti-war activists reconnect with the memories of the Second War World, they must also connect with the memories of early protest movements.  The filmmaker Ouchida’s canon of work covering early Marxist-inspired protests provides an avenue to establish continuity in the anti-war cause.  “Ouchida’s camera work is a medium of revolutionary spirit alongside the protest rituals and songs” (Eckersall 337) which provides both inspiration for modern movements but also a look into the techniques that could be appropriated to establish legitimacy for the new wave of protest movements.

Anti-war movement success can be inextricably linked to their ability to integrate the cause into daily life. The visual manifestations of this linkage can be found in daily space and daily physical ritual. The incorporation of space as an actor in political dissent creates long lasting symbolism. In the early protests, an “underground plaza was used as a spatial metaphor for a free space of political action” (Eckersall 339). The plaza acted as a metaphor for a communal, greek breeding ground for ideas and debate. To this day, the underground plaza remains a symbol for free speech in the daily life of travelers. Even with the suppression of the underground protest movement, the space has lent its legitimacy to the modern movement. Another political ritual in Japan is the presentation of petitions. “Through this repeated, ritualized performance, larger social patterns are reproduced and reinforced” ( Steinhoff 209) one being the government’s subservience to the voice of the people. The very visual activity of a large gathering of people and the ritual presentation of a petition reaffirms the right of protest in culture. Such ritual again adds legitimacy to modern anti-war movements though visual symbols. The modern movement has further extrapolated this by  “drawing attention to art and its intangible relationship to daily life as a political stance” (Eckersall 336). By acknowledging historical rituals like tea drinking — “a cultural symbol in Japan” (Ogawa 392) —  protests movements have used these cultural symbols as metaphors for patience and peace as well as to add continuity and legitimacy to their movements. Art and the symbolism of dripping water at anti-war monuments, for example, integrate themselves into daily life through their visual presence. The use of art and ritual to culturally connect and imbed modern anti-war sentiment lends contemporary anti-nuclear and anti-war protests legitimacy, strength, and inspiration.

All of these histories and visual symbols are cumulating in a new wave of peace activism. Activism being a word given to describe the transnational youth movements of today. According to Ogawa, “Japan’s peace activism has gained fresh momentum, led by young adults” (2016). This fresh momentum draws heavily on culture and ritual established by past movements but has truly succeeded by incorporated modern culture and contemporary phenomena. By capitalizing on the 4.11 nuclear disaster, young movements have gained support from youth who want to live free of fear. Political apathy in the face of disaster fades when politics directly impacts everyday life. The movements of today create their own symbols as well.  “Rhythm borrowed from hip-hop” (McCurry) mimics the heartbeat of the nation and the stomping of marching protesters. Not only does hip-hop draw in young protesters it also builds upon the messages of the past and the cause. The cultural core the new movement garners supporters but also has become a tool to demonstrate and represent the desire for a political voice — one which demands the right to live in peace and reconstructs the pacifist identity in danger of fading in Japan.

Support for an amendment to Article 9 continues to wax and wan but the steps of Abe’s current cabinet have gone farther than any government to dismantle Japan’s principles of pacifism. Regardless of if an amendment is passed under his tenure, Abe has overseen another dramatic shift in both the official and public interpretation of Article 9 — one which leads Japan further away from its unique pacifist ideals. The success of modern protest movements and visual-culture to reinvigorate Japanese war memories and incorporate pacifism — the right to live in peace — into daily life will determine the militaristic and nuclear future of Japan. The creation of a new cultural core for Japanese anti-nuclear and anti-war movement break from an ideological past but still draw upon past symbols of rebellion to give their movements legitimacy. By transforming visual symbols, the movements hope to gain lasting support from an internationally consistent apolitical youth. Modern natural disasters have helped to reinforce the dangers of nuclear power but also recall the memories of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Yet, in a world where the threats to Japanese security are more convoluted and complex as ever, the principles of peace Japan has embodied since the end of World War Two may become counterproductive or out of date. Peace is a goal for all nations and so far, at the behest of its people, Japan’s actions have demonstrated its commitment to its constitution, but the path of reinterpretation ends with abolishment. Japanese culture and protest have so far propped up pacifist beliefs in government but some see an inevitable future where the consequences, violence, and manipulation of war must one day be again faced by the Japanese people.




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