TOKYO (AFP) ― Pacifist Japan’s move to loosen restrictions on its military is facing widespread public anger and a protester’s horrific suicide bid.
Hundreds of people in the busy Tokyo district of Shinjuku watched on Sunday afternoon as a middle-aged man in a suit set himself ablaze above a footbridge, after making a speech opposing moves to let Japan’s well-equipped military fight on behalf of allies.
The dramatic suicide attempt was widely discussed on social media, with numerous videos and photographs posted by onlookers.
Many Internet users made the connection between the self-immolation and a groundswell of opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to relax constitutional rules preventing Japan’s armed forces from going into battle.
Several thousand protesters showed up outside the premier’s Tokyo office on Monday evening, shouting slogans such as “no war” and “arrest the fascists” ― as some carried posters showing Abe with a moustache similar to that of Adolph Hitler.
The conservative leader says regional tensions ― including China’s increasingly assertive stance in various territorial disputes and an erratic North Korea ― mean Japan must be better prepared to defend itself.
At least half the population is against a more aggressive military stance, according to the latest polls.
The liberal Mainichi newspaper said at the weekend that 58 percent of voters are opposed, while the Nikkei business daily, in its poll published Monday, said 50 percent of respondents were against the change.
The government’s chief spokesman Yoshihide Suga defended the plan, saying: “The government should protect people’s lives and property as well as the country’s safety ... and if there is a defect in the current legal framework, we will address it.”
Tokyo police said Monday that nothing was known of the protester’s condition more than 24 hours after he was rushed to hospital with severe burns.
The dramatic suicide bid received scant coverage in mainstream media ― which is sometimes criticized as servile. None of the national newspapers used a picture in their short reports.
Broadcaster NHK, whose chairman caused outrage earlier this year by suggesting that the state-funded body should not contradict the prime minister, did not cover the self-immolation on the day.
At least two private broadcasters did, however, using YouTube footage.
Popular protest in Japan has tended to be muted in recent decades, and protest suicides are very rare, with only a handful taking place in living memory.
In 1970, right-wing novelist Yukio Mishima disemboweled himself after a failed attempted coup, in protest against what he saw as an overly meek state.
In 1967, a 73-year-old man set himself alight in front of the prime minister’s official residence over the then-premier’s support for U.S. bombing of North Vietnam.
Abe had wanted to change the constitution to lower the bar for military action, but found himself unable to muster the required super-majority in both houses and was leery about a necessary public referendum.
Instead, he has moved to changed how the constitution is interpreted, which supporters say is necessary to avoid the paralysis that often besets Japanese politics, but which critics say undermines democracy.
“Changing the rules by cabinet approval only is not good for either supporters of collective self-defense or opponents,” said Hideki Konishi, a politics professor at Kansai University.
“This means that rules can change whenever there is a change of government.”
That prospect worried Osamu Ishigaki, who attended Monday’s protest with his wife.
“We cannot tolerate this, never!” the 62-year-old said. “Many people voted for Abe and his party in (2012) elections, but that does not mean they gave him the absolute right to do this.”