Last year, two U.S. experts on international security suggested Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could win the Nobel Peace Prize by making a grand gesture conceding a group of rocky islets claimed both by Tokyo and Seoul to South Korea. With Japanese historians having raised questions about their country’s claim to the islets, they argued, such a move would transform Korean perceptions of its former colonial ruler and force China and other countries to re-examine their views of Japan.
The Japanese leader, however, has since proved not to be bold, courageous or visionary enough to follow this recommendation, which would have brought priceless benefits to his nation and Northeast Asia as a whole. Steeped in right-wing nationalism fueled by Japan’s mounting rivalry with an increasingly assertive China, Abe has led his country in the revisionist direction of denying its pre-1945 wartime atrocities and pushing to amend its pacifist constitution, imposed during U.S. occupation after World War II.
On Dec. 26, he visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead including 14 Class-A war criminals, sparking harsh criticism not only from Asian neighbors but Western governments and media outlets. Days before, Abe told a Japanese public broadcaster that revising the constitution, which includes an article limiting Tokyo’s military to self-defense and renouncing the use of force as a means of settling international disputes, was his “life’s work” as a politician. In a New Year comment published in a conservative Japanese newspaper, he predicted the constitution “will have been revised by 2020” when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympic Games.
By pushing for the amendment of the pacifist article to promote his “proactive pacifism,” Abe may inadvertently be giving his people a chance to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In a move that deserves more global attention, more than 8,000 Japanese citizens have so far signed a petition to award the prize to Japan’s postwar constitution. The movement was kicked off a year ago by a Japanese housewife in her 30s, who was inspired when the EU received the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for its contributions to peace, reconciliation and democracy in postwar Europe. She thought that Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which contains the no-war clause, was also entitled to receive the prize, assuming that the award would help block Abe’s attempt at a constitutional revision.
In August, her campaign grew more concrete with the establishment of an executive committee to recommend the Japanese people as Nobel Peace Prize candidates for their efforts to maintain the constitution. The measure followed a notice from the Nobel Committee that, unlike individuals and groups, abstract things such as national constitutions cannot serve as candidates.
Their movement should get more attention and support from the international community in the run up to the Feb. 1 deadline for candidacy registration for the prize and thereafter. Civic groups here, in particular, need to assume an active role in strengthening global solidarity through this initiative by Japan’s conscientious civil society members.
Abe’s adherence to a constitutional amendment may paradoxically serve to remind the world of the values and contributions of Japan’s postwar constitution. In an interview marking his 80th birthday last month, Japanese Emperor Akihito evaluated the constitution as the backbone of his country’s peace and democracy and the foundation of its current prosperity.
It remains to be seen what choice the Nobel Peace Prize Committee will make this year, with many complex factors, some of which are yet to be recognized, lying ahead. But it is certain that honoring the peace-loving Japanese public would help make the world safer and more secure.