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As I See It: Nippon Kaigi and the debate over constitutional revision

A rally held by an organization affiliated with Nippon Kaigi on May 3, 2016, Constitution Memorial Day, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi)

The people who surrounded the Diet Building demanding the elimination of nuclear power after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear disaster possessed sincerity. People who fight hate speech share the same anger. And as security bills were railroaded through the Diet last year, many opposing the bills felt hopeful as the Student Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) group and other young people spoke up against the laws.

However, the conservative organization Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), which aims for a rewriting of the Constitution, including war-renouncing Article 9, lacks the passion that's characteristic of civic movements. Lectures and other events held by the organization are very formal, and could be likened to scenes from a regional election campaign office. The sight of sheets and sheets of petitions piling up is very clerical, and reminds one of ballot counting carried out by municipal government employees. There's something cold and robotic about it all.

A new political culture is said to have taken root since the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011, centered on youth, who have made great use of social networking tools. The anti-nuclear movement, the anti-hate-speech movement, and the anti-security-legislation movement are probably the most easily recognizable of this shift in Japan's activist landscape. Because I had been reporting on such movements, Nippon Kaigi felt very alien to me. Why was the group characterized as Japan's behind-the-scenes power broker? I was curious to find out.

I first reported on Nippon Kaigi in September 2015, when I went to a general assembly of a regional chapter of Nippon Kaigi in Nagano. The stage was filled with the chapter's board members, including Diet members representing Nagano Prefecture as well as prefectural assembly members, and the participants were all middle-aged or older. If only there'd been a victory "daruma" doll at the venue, it would have looked exactly like an election campaign office. There, staffers at Nippon Kaigi headquarters began talking about the organization's goal of collecting 10 million signatures for a petition seeking constitutional revision.

"The petition is not merely a petition," they said. "It will be the phone book we use when we want to call on people to vote in favor of constitutional amendment when it comes time for a national referendum."

According to the explanation given at the event, Nippon Kaigi predicts that in a national referendum, there will be some 60 million valid votes. By collecting the names and contact information of 10 million people through the petition and using that information to call and encourage people to vote in favor of constitutional amendment in a national referendum, the staff from Nippon Kaigi headquarters explained that it would be possible to capture the majority votes needed to make constitutional revision a reality.

Walking in step with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an avid champion of constitutional reform, the organization was clear in its desire to pave the way toward constitutional amendment. In terms of both its systemized structure and its strategy, Nippon Kaigi was obviously different from other civic movements and organizations that I'd encountered.

I realized why as I continued my research. Conservative organizations Nippon Kyogikai and Nippon Seinen Kyogikai, chaired by Yuzo Kabashima, comprise the core of Nippon Kaigi. Members of the two groups have their origins in the religious organization Seicho no Ie, and are "professional" activists who have been engaged in conservative and patriotic movements for at least 40 years.

The 1970s movement to pass the Era Name Act, the movement to establish a national celebration for anniversaries of the Emperor's accession to the throne, and the movement to revise the Fundamental Law of Education during the first administration of Prime Minister Abe in 2006 were all initiated by Nippon Kaigi, and all followed the same pattern. First, pressure was applied on regional assemblies to vote in agreement of a certain cause, then there would be a petition drive to make "public opinion" visible. Finally, those fait accomplis would be used as leverage to convince the administration to make the cause a reality. The name of the organization doing the work may differ from time to time, but what's being done is still the same. The same strategy has been used by Nippon Kaigi.

Many of the people who collect signatures and participate in lectures are from groups affiliated with Nippon Kaigi, who are effectively mobilized to create large crowds. The fact that the individuals are participating in these events as members of groups is probably the reason why I felt a lack of passion and conviction. In that sense, the way Nippon Kaigi and its affiliates operate resembles old political movements that centered on labor unions. This also indicates that the movement has been contained in a certain portion of society, unable to expand. That this does not equal Nippon Kaigi's lack of influence can be attributed to the fact that we live in a time in which the majority of the public is disinterested in politics.

As we have seen in falling voter turnouts, people have lost interest in politics in the past several dozen years. Liberals' strength has waned and hence their influence on public opinion. Meanwhile, Nippon Seinen Kyogikai persisted in its activism and survived, coming together with other conservative groups to form Nippon Kaigi. As a result, they have increased their presence, albeit relative to liberals.

As for Nippon Kaigi's influence on the administration, I'm still unsure, to be honest. However, as I wrote in a Mainichi Shimbun article on Nov. 3 about Nippon Kaigi's intention to revise Article 24 of the Constitution, citing that its ideal family is the one from the manga, "Sazae-san," I feel as though Nippon Kaigi's arguments are gaining traction in Japanese society.

Almost all the movements initiated by Nippon Kaigi thus far have ended in success, giving us reason to think that they will accomplish constitutional revision as well. The emergence of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the Brexit vote in the U.K. have shown that zeal can be dangerous when it comes to politics. But what's also dangerous is when important things are decided while the majority remains disinterested and unenthusiastic. I believe Nippon Kaigi is bringing into question the distance between us and politics. (By Keigo Kawasaki, Tokyo City News Department)

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