Revision as redemption

Ozawa Ichiro, DPJ president, laid into the prime minister on TV Asahi this morning, emphasizing that he disagrees not just with the prime minister’s position on constitution revision, but with the prime minister’s philosophy root and branch.

I’m with Ozawa on this one (and not because I work for a member of his party).

Back in January, I wrote that instead of looking back to Japan’s postwar nationalists, including Abe’s grandfather Kishi Nobusuke, it was more appropriate to view Abe as governing in the same vein as the Choshu oligarchs who built the Meiji state, conservative pragmatists who combined the desire to forge a strong, unified — heavy emphasis on unified — independent state capable of competing with the European empires with tremendous tactical flexibility. And let’s not forget, of course, that the oligarchs had no trust in the people whatsoever. Wrote Richard Samuels in his Machiavelli’s Children:

Never liberal…the Meiji oligarchs believed that public opinion encouraged political dissent, which was seditious and weakened the state. Ito captured this view by referring to “the onslaught of extremely democratic ideas” that had to be resisted. Ito would incorporate the people to achieve national unity, but not as a matter of any innate right to self-government. He chose to avoid popular control by appealing to “a higher transcendent moral order…that would deny any notion of private interest”— the emperor.

While I won’t go so far as to call Abe anti- or un-democratic, I do think that he shares with the Meiji genro the desire for an independent and unified Japan. Perhaps in some way Abe’s desire to revise the Occupation-era constitution is akin to the Meiji leaders’ burning desire to amend the “unequal treaties” imposed on Japan in its time of weakness.

In fact, political scientist Douglas Lummis apparently has alluded to the Meiji Constitution, according to an article by Eric Johnston in the Japan Times last week: “He believes the LDP would prefer the kind of society Japan was in the years immediately before the war.” I don’t necessarily share the same alarm as Lummis, but I think he’s right in observing that constitution revision is bigger than article nine.

Abe, in a manner similar to Charles De Gaulle, father of the French Fifth Republic with whom I’ve so often compared him, has une certaine idée de Japon, but do the citizens he supposedly represents as prime minister share his vision, and if they don’t, is Abe willing to modify his vision? Or are the prime minister’s plans for the education system a way of bending twenty-first century Japan to his vision, much as Mori Arinori’s reforms of the education system in 1885 served as a means of inculcating Japan’s youth with the Meiji oligarchs’ vision of Japan? (See chapter three of the Ministry of Education’s white paper, which discusses the creation of the modern education system; this section is especially revealing.) If that is the case, then it is necessary to ask whether Abe’s vision — again, arguably the direct descendant of the ideas of the Meiji oligarchs — is appropriate for twenty-first century Japan in the first place.

But for all Ozawa’s opposition, I’m not quite sure from what quarters opposition to the prime minister will come, if it comes at all. Certainly not, it seems, from within the LDP. Nor, if this post at Global Voices Online surveying opinions on constitution revision voiced by Japanese bloggers is indicative of anything, will it come from the Japanese people.

My problem, mind you, isn’t constitution revision: my problem is Abe’s obsession with it, which is the mirror image of the tendency of some defenders of the constitution to treat it as a kind of sacred totem. For Abe is intimately wrapped up with the constitution, revision being as much a personal as a political matter for him — just look at how he writes about his grandfather in his book.

If Japan is to revise its constitution, it should do so under a prime minister who is capable of soberly assessing the matter, not one who is utterly consumed by the idea of revision as redemption.

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