Defining the Heisei Era: Part 12


Living on a prayer: A woman prays by a tree at the National Cemetery in Tokyo on the 64th anniversary of the end of World War II. | ROB GILHOOLY


As we count down to the end of the Heisei Era, The Japan Times presents the final installment of a series that looks back at the leading issues of the past three decades. This contribution examines the shifting perception of peace over the past 30 years

Contributing writer

On Dec. 23, 2018, Emperor Akihito gave an emotional birthday news conference, his last before abdicating.

The Emperor told reporters he felt “sincerely relieved” that there had been no war on his watch and that, while some global developments had not entirely “proceeded in the direction that we desired,” the Heisei Era was looking as though it would wind up being pretty much as written on the lid: Over the era’s three decades, peace had been achieved. Mission accomplished.

The previous era — Showa (1926-89) — had seen two major conflicts. As a 3-year-old, the Emperor would have little recollection of the first conflict, the Sino-Japanese war. The second was World War II, which ended for Japan with the surrender speech by his father, Emperor Hirohito, when then-Prince Akihito was 11 — an event that, as for many Japanese of that period, would likely be etched in his memory.

The “peace and prosperity” that ensued was down to the “numerous sacrifices and tireless efforts” of the people, which, along with the countless lives lost, should never be forgotten and “passed on accurately” to future generations, the Emperor told reporters.

A survey three months earlier by national broadcaster NHK suggests the general public held a similar view. Asked what characteristics best summed up the Heisei Era (1989-2019), 79 percent thought it would be best remembered as being “peaceful and without war.”

On a wider stage, too, the era is viewed in a similar light. Japan has consistently made the top 10 in the Global Peace Index, placing as high as third in 2011.

Ironically, that was the same year as the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the second-worst nuclear incident in history, which then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan believed could have placed not just Japan’s peace in jeopardy, but its “very existence.”

And while Fukushima represents a prominent bump along the Heisei road, it certainly wasn’t the only one.

“Heisei was peaceful, but only in comparison with the Showa Era,” said student Rei Nishizaki as he read the announcement of the shin-gengō (new era) — Reiwa — on his phone on April 1. “I think politically some seeds were sewn that could have ramifications in the next era and while I hope Reiwa, too, will be peaceful, we may have to review that appraisal (of Heisei) should it prove not be the case.”

It’s jejune to call the Heisei Era “peaceful,” says Masaharu Yagishita, a retired university professor who now heads an environmental research center in Kawasaki as he, too, reflected on the era and pondered the just-announced name of the new era.

“Even domestically there were some terrible natural disasters, and man-made ones, like the (1995) Aum sarin gas attack, but globally, too, there were terrorist attacks and numerous conflicts, not to mention global warming,” he says. “Many of these things pose threats to Japan’s peace. It was an era of diverse — and sometimes terrible — events that give you pause to realize we haven’t come close to attaining peace, domestically or globally.”

Company employee Ryuta Gonotsubo, 34, lists ongoing regional tensions, such as North Korea, which in 2017 conducted ballistic missile tests that passed over Japan, and numerous territorial disputes, such as those with Russia and South Korea, as examples of how fragile peace sometimes felt.

“These disputes have been going on for decades and we came no closer to resolving them,” he says.

The Global Peace Index, an annual report produced by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace, also looks beyond the presence or absence of war in its gauge of peacefulness in 163 independent states and territories. It also evaluates “the absence of violence or the fear of violence” across three areas, namely “safety and security,” “ongoing conflict” and “militarization.”

Japan has gradually slipped down the overall Global Peace Index ranking to an all-time low of ninth in 2018. Although still ranked as one of 13 countries with “very high” levels of peace, its score across those domains has been in decline since the index’s inception in 2008, reflecting what some experts argue is a trend that harks back to the early Heisei Era.

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    Living on a prayer: A woman prays by a tree at the National Cemetery in Tokyo on the 64th anniversary of the end of World War II. | ROB GILHOOLY

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    People take part in a demonstration against nuclear power in Tokyo in April 2011. | ROB GILHOOLY

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    Two students pose for a photo in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. | ROB GILHOOLY

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    Paper cranes are hung by a statue at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. | ROB GILHOOLY

Conflicting interests

Japan’s perspective of those three spheres has altered greatly during that time, not least with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — the first year of the Heisei Era — which marked the end of the Cold War and the birth of a new world order.

In the postwar decades leading up to Heisei, Japan was happy to take refuge under its war-renouncing Constitution and the broad-rimmed U.S. nuclear umbrella and although for the time-being they were stuck with the Showa Era and the wartime images its name embodied, people were desperate to move on toward “peace at any price,” says Kenji Isezaki, a professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

“Peace is a very relative term, but generally is used to refer to something that’s antiwar,” says Isezaki, who specializes in peace-building and conflict prevention studies. “Whether that notion is correct or not, we have to question it because every war is initiated in the name of peace. I don’t think Japan can question that subject because we have remained entirely under the will of the U.S. — a situation we got used to over a long time.”

Despite widespread anti-Japan-U.S. security protests during the 1960s and ’70s, little had changed, particularly during the bubble years of economic growth and prosperity, he says.

“Apparently even the protest movement didn’t alter anything, because subsequently Japan lost the motivation to change,” he says. “We fell into a kind of slumber, without questioning even fundamental things and instead searched for peace and safety within.”

With the arrival of the Heisei Era, however, Japan began to show signs of suffering from a kind of restless leg syndrome that stirred it from that sleep, with rapid increases in arms imports accompanied by efforts to mobilize its Self-Defense Forces.

That new dawn saw Japan rising to third place on the globe’s biggest military spenders list and its first significant contribution to international peacekeeping efforts when civilian electoral observers were dispatched to Namibia followed by minesweepers to the Persian Gulf in 1991, the latter thanks to a broad interpretation of the SDF law.

However, it wasn’t until the enactment of international peacekeeping legislation in 1992 that Japan’s SDF troops were deployed to U.N. missions around the globe, including in Cambodia, Mozambique and East Timor.

As they were restricted to areas where ceasefire conditions had been reached and could only use weapons for self-defense, the U.N. provided them with “the safest jobs in the safest places during the safest period,” of a conflict, Isezaki says.

All that changed in 2004 when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pushed legislation through the Diet allowing SDF troops to support the U.S. in Iraq. The four-year mission there — without a U.N. mandate — was widely viewed as marking the end of half a century of pacifism.

Logs from those times — released last spring after previously being reported lost — suggested SDF members may have operated inside a combat zone, which in accordance with the constitution is illegal.

This marked the start of incremental nibbles at the Constitution, beginning in earnest in 2005 when Koizumi approved his Liberal Democratic Party’s plan to revise Article 9, which bans the maintenance of armed forces, in an attempt to allow the Self-Defense Forces to serve as a more active ally to the United States.

A decade later, Koizumi’s protege, incumbent leader Shinzo Abe, forced through bills that enabled Japan’s forces to participate in “collective self-defense,” meaning Japan could now scrap it out with its allies should they come under attack.

Even though similar legislation — the Regional Affairs Law — allowing Tokyo to provide “rear support” in a U.S.-initiated conflict even when Japan is not under attack had been passed in 1999, Abe’s bills were met with widespread public condemnation and mass demonstrations, one of which in Tokyo was attended by more than 120,000 protestors, among them members of the erstwhile student movement SEALDs (which some speculate was propped up by activists from the 1960s and ’70s).

Thousands more, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Toshihide Maskawa and survivors of World War II air raids, sued the government over the legislation, which they said violated their constitutional right to live in peace as Japan could become the target of armed attacks and terrorism should it become embroiled in warfare.

In December, Abe proposed fresh amendments that, ironically, were opposed by Koizumi, who, in his post-Fukushima role as a neo-anti-nuclear activist, urged Abe to forget the “undoable” and work toward things that were “doable” — such as getting rid of Japan’s nuclear reactors and its growing stockpile of weapons grade plutonium, which currently stands at 47 tons, enough to manufacture 6,000 atomic bombs.

In the interim, the Self-Defense Forces had done its best to show once more that revisions were barely necessary. During U.N. peacekeeping operations in South Sudan in July 2016, Japanese forces reportedly became embroiled in activities that violated Japan’s peacekeeping law. These were relayed to then-Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who initially buried them — a cover-up that ultimately led to her resignation.

Abe argued that it was the “mission” of politicians to allow SDF members to undertake their duties “with a sense of pride” and, in order to do that, the Constitution needed to be revised for “proactive contribution to peace based on the principle of international cooperation.”

During a visit to Japan in 2018, Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, who is widely recognized as the father of peace and conflict studies, argued that Abe’s Article 9 revision had nothing to do with  “positive peace … where countries go to peace together,” but instead “desired equity with the U.S. in order to go to war together.”

“When Abe talks about militarizing Japan and becoming a strong military power, he’s not living in the 21st century, he’s living in the 20th or 19th century,” he said.

Galtung said the kind of Article 9 that Abe has in mind is not a bill that increases security but “a bill for insecurity, by invoking revenge on Japan and by leading to an arms race.”

Isezaki, who calls Article 9 “ a religion” for many Japanese, agrees, but says the seeds were sown with Japan’s forays into Iraq, which were “completely detrimental.” 

“We had been harmless — that was our image. We had been good to Iran, to Saudi Arabia, to Sunni, to Shia.  We had been neutral, even to Palestine,” Isezaki says. “But sending troops to Iraq completely changed Arab societies’ notions about Japan. It was the starting point of change, and Abe hit the accelerator.”

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    Kenji Isezaki, a professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies who specialises in peacebuilding and conflict prevention studies, poses for a photo outside his office in Tokyo on 10 April 2019. | ROB GILHOOLY

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    Sachiko Eguchi, 82, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, poses for a photo after taking part in an anti nuclear weapons petition signing event in Tokyo on 09 April 2019. | ROB GILHOOLY

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    A-bomb survivor Keiko Ogura stands in front of the cenotaph commemorating those who died in the 1945 blast in Hiroshima City, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan on Feb. 10, 2017. | ROB GILHOOLY

Bad old days

Sachiko Eguchi and Keiko Ogura fear such a change of perception could not only lead to terrorist attacks, such as that which struck Christchurch, New Zealand, but also end up taking Japan back to the bad old days. And for these two survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, anything that threatens to do that simply should not be brought to the table.

Eguchi, who was 6 years old at the time of the bombing on Nagasaki, expresses concern about the changing attitudes of younger generations, who are becoming ambivalent to war and, by association, to peace as well.

“The prosperity we have enjoyed particularly during the Heisei Era has made people forget the terrors of war,” says Eguchi as she stood outside Shinjuku Station on April 9 collecting signatures to take to the United Nations in May in a plea to eradicate the world of nuclear weapons. “Younger generations won’t sign these petitions or even discuss the issue of nuclear disarmament. They don’t understand that peace shouldn’t be taken for granted.”

Ogura, who was also an elementary school student at the time the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, developed a phobia of war planes, and even today the sight of military aircraft brings tears to her eyes.

Nonetheless, she has made it her mission to pass on her memories in the name of peace, a peace she feels started to slip away during the Heisei Era.

“When I think of the Heisei Era, I don’t think of peace and calmness,” she says. “I think of oppressive legislation — the state secrets and anti-conspiracy acts, for example, and the efforts to change the Constitution due to alleged threats from North Korea, China and Russia. However, this is just an excuse to make the case for changing the Constitution and increase the defense budget. It’s a kind of fear-mongering that adds to an atmosphere that’s similar to before the war.”

One person who agrees is Hiroji Yamashiro, who over the past four years has been arrested multiple times during protests of the U.S. military bases in Okinawa — detentions that have been widely criticized by international media and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.

While people in other parts of Japan might feel the Heisei Era was a peaceful one, Okinawans have a different viewpoint, he says.

“For Okinawans it’s not just the scars of war that remain, but war itself,” says Yamashiro, whose protest-related “destruction of property” offenses include cutting a single strand of barbed wire surrounding a U.S. military installation. “During the Heisei Era, U.S. Marines have been deployed (to war zones) from Okinawa bases, they are still killing and raping and causing various other incidents such as aircraft accidents, and so on. … In that respect, I don’t think any Okinawans think of Heiwa as a peaceful era.”

According to Yamashiro, Okinawans are less fearful of their East Asian neighbors than they are of the United States, and Japan could make a huge contribution to peace in the region if Japan’s prime minister were to tone down the rhetoric, particularly regarding China.

“I doubt there are many nations that have enjoyed economic prosperity that have not also upped defenses,” says Yamashiro, a former prefectural official and current head of the Okinawa Peace Activity Center, who was detained  and incarcerated in solitary confinement for five months in 2016, treatment that some legal experts claimed contravened the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

“Japan did it, too, and while claiming to have a peace Constitution, puts aside more than ¥5 trillion a year for military spending and has lifted bans (in 2014) on arms exports,” Yamashiro says. “If Japan is serious about promoting peace in the region then it should be sending a different message — not increasing militarization and extending U.S. bases.”

Peace and rights

Many see Yamashiro’s treatment as a flexing of authoritarian muscle and the anti-conspiracy bill as a means to suppress the kind of civilian resistance his organization embodies.

There is also a view that such legislation has contributed to altering the Japanese peace psyche irreparably, threatening to create a repressive atmosphere that is reminiscent of the war years.

“One thing I think characterizes the Heisei Era is that people seem to have become colder, less considerate and less compassionate,” said one woman in her 50s who asked not to be named as she shopped in Tokyo with her 21-year-old daughter on April 1. “The Showa Era, for all its ills, seemed warmer and more harmonious.”

At about the same time, just a stone’s throw away a fight was breaking out outside Shinbashi Station as hundreds of businesspeople pushed forward to get their hands on extra editions of newspapers announcing the name of the new era, Reiwa — “beautiful harmony.”

Amid the balmy heat of late spring, people grappled like animals to get a copy, many of which were ripped to shreds. One man’s glasses were knocked from his face and trampled underfoot. Punches were thrown.

“Stop pushing — I’m gonna be killed,” shouted one man caught in the center of the melee.

“People were literally fighting,” said one woman in a TV interview, who also had her glasses knocked from her face. “It was like war had broken out.”


Defining the Heisei Era: A 12-part series from The Japan Times

    MAY 26, 2018
    JUNE 23, 2018
    JULY 28, 2018
    AUGUST 25, 2018
    SEPTEMBER 29, 2018
    OCTOBER 27, 2018
    NOVEMBER 24, 2018
    DECEMBER 22, 2018
    JANUARY 26, 2019
    FEBRUARY 23, 2019
    MARCH 30, 2019
    APRIL 28, 2019