What kind of democracy does Japan have

Japan: Democracy, that can go away


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The posters on the streets of Tokyo paraphrase the usual promises. These are the supposed feel-good issues of the last few years since Shinzo Abe became Prime Minister: delaying the VAT hike so that people have more money in their pockets. An economic recovery that brings more jobs. And the strengthening of the nation: Japan will assert itself with strength in an increasingly globalized world, for the good of all, of course. Who should say no to such vaguely worded ideas?

It seems certain that Shinzo Abe will win the majority again this time after his election victories in 2012, 2013 and 2014. On Sunday, the Japanese elect the upper house, the second, less influential chamber of the national parliament. Then half of all 242 seats will be reassigned. What initially looks like an unimportant vote could turn out to be an election that fundamentally changes the country. If Abe manages to combine two-thirds of the places on his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its comrades-in-arms, he would have taken an important hurdle to change the Japanese constitution, which he did not like. And then Japan might no longer be the free country it has been since the end of World War II.

For three and a half years, the 62-year-old nationalist, grandson of a convicted war criminal and later prime minister, has been working to weaken several elements that made Japan the first liberal democracy in Asia. After he was elected to office with a clear majority at the end of 2012 because he had promised the voters an economic boom with his economic strategy, he soon passed a state secret law. Since then, the government has had the right to withhold certain sensitive issues from the public. Whistleblowing or reporting about it is now punishable by imprisonment.

Soon after, Abe achieved a reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution. Article 9 of the text, which was largely written by the victorious USA after the Second World War, prohibits warfare under all circumstances.

Nationalists like Abe see Japan as castrated as a result. The new reading, which many consider to be unconstitutional and which, according to surveys, a majority of the Japanese also believe to be wrong, now allows military missions abroad under certain conditions. For example, when it comes to defending an ally whose security is of vital importance to Japan. This reinterpretation was accompanied by an increase in the military budget and the new possibility of exporting Japanese armaments.

Then, last year, Abe's government took on science. In a letter to all national universities, the then education minister urged that universities abolish their social sciences and humanities. Research and teaching should offer "a more practical, more applied education that is better adjusted to the needs of society". It is better to promote subjects such as computer science, robotics and medicine. After all, these are the growth industries of the future, and not philosophy or foreign languages. At the schools, the government also made it clear that students and teachers are not allowed to get involved in politics. Officially, to ensure an ideology-free learning environment.