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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Post-war Japan and the democracy of opinion

Paul Jobin, Yoshio Miyake et Noriko Berlinguez-Kono

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1June 2003

2After years of debate, a large majority of the Japanese parliament (with opposition from the Socialist and Communist parties only) is about to adopt a national emergency legislation (yûji hôsei). This is an important step because it practically abolishes Article 9 of the 1946 Constitution preventing Japan from declaring war. If this legislation means that Japan is finally developing its own foreign policy by cutting the umbilical cord with the United States, it could be seen as a positive step. However, the opposite seems closer to reality.

3Last March, when millions of people were protesting in Rome, Madrid and London to oppose their governments’ support for the Iraq invasion, only 50,000 protestors took to the streets in Tokyo to protest against Prime Minister Koizumi backing the Bush policy. This protest was a far cry than that against the Vietnam War, which took place in Japan between 1965 and 1972.

4Nevertheless, according to surveys carried out before the Americans invaded Iraq, 80% of Japanese people opposed the war. Regardless of how the American intervention is viewed, the discrepancy between public opinion expressed in the surveys and the lack of public expression in the streets raises the question of democracy in Japan. It is as if Japanese pacifism was today reduced to an ineffective, but pious hope as far as politics is concerned. A young woman was asked why people were not protesting like they were in Europe. She replied that she would like to protest, but she did not know how. This young woman is representative of the divide that now separates politics and civil society in Japan. How did this divide occur? To use a term dear to left-wing Japanese politicians in the 1950s, what has happened to “post-war democracy” (sengo minshûshugi)?

5Without hypostatising “public opinion”, we can observe that it no longer has the political culture that gave rise to concrete forms of expression up until the mid-1970s. In the same way that it has almost lost touch with unions and citizen movements, Japanese public opinion no longer finds its voice in opposition parties (the Japanese Socialist and Communist parties). This public opinion is increasingly sceptical of all political parties including the reigning LDP (the Liberal Democrat Party), as shown by the relative success of independent candidates in local elections. Alongside abstentionists, this independent movement is the second “political force” in Japan today, and could be interpreted as a positive sign, indicating the transformation of political parties. However, Ishihara Shintarô’s recent re-election as the Governor of Tokyo comes with its share of risks and contradictions. His anti-party populism is accompanied by means of dismantling social protection systems. He has also made xenophobic comments about Korean and Chinese minorities living in Japan. In this situation, does the Japanese civil society’s lack of a clear voice make it ready for a “national emergency legislation”, despite its pacifist stance? Historical events, in particular, and changes affecting trade unionism, will help us answer this question.

6Between 1952 and 1960, the battle against “cooperationism”, led by the Socialist-oriented trade union federation, Sôhyô, was closely linked to opposing the Japan-United States Security Treaty (ANPO). For these two protest movements, things came to a spectacular end in 1960 with the defeat of the Miike miners (in southern Japan). In the years that followed, practically no strikes took place in companies in Japan’s private sector, apart from a few sporadic and minority movements.

7In 1975, a major strike movement affected the public sector. Its aim was to reinstate civil servants’ right to strike (abolished by the American occupying army in 1947). However, the Japanese government launched an ideological counter-offensive attacking this labour movement. The civil servants who were on strike were presented as lazy and unable to adapt to the modernisation needed by the Japanese infrastructure. The national railway workers’ union, Kokuro, was the first to be targeted. In 1986, the government used the privatisation and division of national railways into smaller regional companies as an excuse to launch a repression movement against Kokuro. At the time, Kokuro was one of the major unions supporting the Sôhyô federation, along with the unions for teachers, postal workers and local authorities. Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro openly stated that his objective was to bring down the federation, one of the Socialist Party’s main supporters. In 1989, what was left of Sôhyô merged with its rival, the Dômei confederation, forming “Rengô”, a massive labour confederation with over 8 million members (down to 7 million today) whose goal was to become a Japanese-style socio-democratic movement. The Socialist Party gradually fell apart, and today only holds a few seats in parliament. While Japan’s “left-wing” parties bear similar names to their French counterparts, they differ considerably in terms of ideology and structure. Nevertheless, it is still useful to examine the reasons underlying the LDP’s decision to eliminate its political rivals and silence trade unionism. This requires us to consider Japanese history in a wider international context.

8For the Japanese people, the United States is still a kind of “powerful conqueror” because American soldiers were the first to “set foot” on Japanese soil, in addition to being “white” and therefore, doubly foreign. The United States also defeated Japan by using the most fearsome weapon known to mankind – a weapon so powerful it kept the rest of the world in a “balance of terror” for 40 years. Yesterday’s great military victor has today become Japan’s main economic partner and competitor. As a result, following the Korean, Vietnam and first Gulf Wars, the United States managed to push Japan into supporting the second Gulf War.

9This relationship has played a key role in the development of all Japan’s major political and economic institutions and most of its social structures today. It underlies the Japanese Constitution of 1946, including Article 9 to which pacifist left-wing parties are particularly attached. The symbolic significance of this article could even have extended beyond Japanese borders if the government had played a more active role in defending it to the international community. In any case, “post-war democracy” signalled the dawn of a new era for Japan. The Communist and Socialist parties were established, independent trade unions formed and movements opposing the Japan-United States Security Treaty and American military bases developed. These movements inspired the fight against pollution at the end of the 1960s and numerous residential and citizen initiatives supporting pragmatic actions in the 1970s. This grassroot democracy is still a key element of politics. As long as the people or demos are involved in politics, there is reason to believe in democracy. However, do the people have other ways of thinking for or expressing themselves than through anonymous and “individualising” surveys?

10The relationship between Japan and the United States led to a repression of trade union movements that was unprecedented in the “free world”. This included the “Red Purge” that targeted Communists between 1947 and 1952, and strategies ridding the Socialists later on. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Communist and Socialist workers adopted slogans advocating “production control” (seisan kanri) and “democracy in the workplace” (shokuba de no minshû-shugi) respectively. Today, nothing remains of these slogans but the “soft underbelly” of the trade union federation Rengô, and a small group of new active, determined and innovative trade unions. As for the parties of this “eternal opposition”, their loss of support in places where wealth is produced means that they have been reduced to occupying a few seats in parliament.

11As mentioned previously, the worker movement and pacifism are closely linked. However, these two movements gradually cut themselves off from the Japanese public opinion, resulting in to a situation that made it possible to pass a “national emergency legislation”. Regardless of our opinion of the content of these laws, the lack of opposition calls into question Japanese democracy. Despite a small turnout and weak media impact, the presence of many young people in protests against the war on Iraq would, nevertheless, seem to indicate a break with the apolitical trend dominating the 1980s and 1990s.

12A documentary film entitled, Be More Human – Kokuro’s 15-Year Struggle, also provides grounds for hope and thought. For two years, this film was screened throughout Japan owing to an enthusiastic “screening movement” (jôei undô). It shows how Kokuro railway workers resisted the repression of trade unions that followed the privatisation of the country’s railroads. While the film does not offer an explanation for the lack of opposition to a “national emergency legislation”, it did create a positive link between “public opinion” and civil society by allowing the audience to meet trade union members and discuss issues that were long overshadowed by the media. Young people do not only see this film as a story from a bygone era, but also as an experience that concerns them directly, given the increasingly precarious labour market.

13This film also provides a very clear description of issues stretching beyond Japanese borders that could give rise to useful comparisons. In many ways, the history of the labour and trade union movements in post-war Japan precedes events in other industrialised countries, France, in particular. Japan’s experience is a warning, at a time when other countries are overhauling pension systems, and regionalising or privatising their public service. It raises the question of what would happen to the French Socialist Party, if, following their current battles with the government, French trade unions representing civil servants were to experience the same fate as their Japanese counterparts.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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