Kyoto, Japan is a city where the old and the new live seamlessly side-by-side. Temples overgrown with trees and flowers sit next to and in-between towering silver skyscrapers. Even in the city, the tranquility of the sacred sites extends and makes you feel oddly at ease in the crowded shopping malls. Everything in Kyoto, like in Japanese society in general, is efficient and orderly – even the protests.
As my group of friends and I were led out of a shopping alley by our Japanese friends, the sound of drums and whistles nearby took us by surprise. Thinking it was the start of one of the numerous summer festivals in Japan, we looked down the street to see the dancers and floats. Instead, we found a slow-moving mass of people marching through the streets, waving signs and banging drums. Some of the signs in English read “No Nukes!” while others in Japanese claimed “the government is looking to become a war country.” Confused, we decided to sit back and watch what happened. Unlike protests in America, the Japanese police were out in full force to protect the marchers, keep them moving, and direct traffic. In a few minutes, the huge demonstration had passed in an orderly manner and the sounds of cars replaced the sounds of the chants. We didn’t really understand what was going on, but as we traveled more and saw more protests, one of our professors decided to let us in on what was happening.
In order to show us how to use Japanese to explain current events, the head professor began our lesson with a current events discussion. He explained that all of Japan was in an uproar because Prime Minister Shinzou Abe wanted to amend the constitution to reverse a very important WWII-era decision. After the war, the framers of Japan’s constitution decided that war was not in the best interests of Japanese society. Thus, an article (Article 9) was written that forbade the island nation from going to war unless it was attacked first. In addition, Japan may only retain defensive forces and may not keep offensive forces on hand at any time. In response to the recent conflicts in the Middle East and citing a growing concern for the safety of Japanese citizens abroad, Prime Minister Abe proposed to nullify the article so that forces could be retained to aid in the fight against ISIS/ISIL and the related extremist groups. Despite public opinion, the government changed the interpretation of the article to justify going on the offensive if an ally was attacked without any type of vote – public or otherwise. This circumvention of democracy initiated the protests that we witnessed in Kyoto. It was an interesting experience to have the privilege of being in Japan during this time of change, and it just showed me that studying abroad is more than just what you learn in class; it’s what you experience within the new culture.
Photo courtesy of Zac Jones.
Zac Jones is junior at the University of Kentucky studying International Studies, Anthropology, and Japanese. Zac participated in the JShIP program at Osaka University during summer 2014.