Why you should care
Because this is one more battleground in the war of the global left and right.
Just over seven decades had passed since the end of World War II when President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stood together in bomb-scarred Hiroshima to speak of remembrance and healing. But just three months after their much-publicized speeches this May, on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender, the scene was not so conciliatory. Outside Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan’s war dead, riot police restrained Japanese nationalists, dressed in uniforms bearing the imperial flag, from attacking pacifists.
The nationalists were going to battle not over history but over Japan’s future — for the right to go to war. Japan’s constitution, which has enshrined pacifism as law since 1947, is under debate as Abe discusses amending it and as nationalists argue the nation needs additional military prowess in the face of Chinese and North Korean aggression.
That day outside Yasukuni Shrine, the nationalists directed their fury at one woman in particular: Mizuho Fukushima, the 60-year-old antinuclear leader who they called “an icon of the left seeking to destroy Japan and contaminating the country with her ideas,” according to Makiko Segawa, a Japanese-language journalist who covered the event. After 20 years in the rough-and-tumble of Japanese politics, Fukushima has her own beef with the nationalists and their campaign to change the constitution, “which would allow Japan to wage war anywhere in the world,” she said. “This is a really serious time.”
Fukushima, small-built and lively, speaks animatedly about a slate of progressive issues: income equality, women’s rights, renewable energy, LGBT issues. Though many of her positions enjoy broad popular support, according to Koichi Nakano, political professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University, her party machine is weak. Fukushima’s Social Democratic Party (SDP), once dominant in Japanese politics, has shrunk significantly over the past 20 years. After swinging toward more militaristic stances in the 1990s, the SDP lost some of its more liberal supporters, experts say, and the party that replaced it was much more centrist. Which means that today, Japan finds itself without a viable left wing.
Of course I want to be prime minister.
Likable both for her platform and her personal story, Fukushima offers another narrative for Japanese politics and Japanese womanhood: She has not married her longtime partner with whom she has a child because Japanese law still requires a woman to share her husband’s surname. Along with many leaders of increasingly fractured progressive movements, from Marina Silva in Brazil to Elizabeth Warren in the U.S., she is facing down an increasingly strong, fiery conservative opposition — Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which won a two-thirds “super majority” in last month’s parliamentary elections. The LDP’s message has whiffs of those being sounded around the rest of the world, albeit far more tempered than their American or European populist counterparts: a strong, nationalistic mantra calling to limit immigration, revive the economy and bolster the military. The way they see it, the pacifist constitution that Fukushima and others on the left seek to protect makes Japan less safe. “If you’re waiting to be attacked, you’ll be gone before you have a chance to do anything,” said Shigeharu Aoyama, an LDP member of the House of Councillors.
Talk to Fukushima about war and you hear a more personal take. Her uncle and several cousins spent World War II in American internment camps; on this side of the Pacific, her father trained to be a kamikaze pilot. The war ended before he could fly his mission, a quirk of timing that still haunts her. She’s particularly worried that the conservatives’ revised constitution would not only restore Japan’s war powers but also give the government authority to restrict human rights if necessary to “maintain public order.” Fukushima thinks the provision could easily be abused to crack down on dissidents. (The LDP’s Aoyama called the idea “almost a joke” and said, “We are just discussing how we should protect our country; Fukushima should stop playing the victim.”)
To get her message out, Fukushima’s studied the strategies of one of the world’s most successful grassroots organizations — the tea party — and is now working to build a “Green Tea Party” in Japan, she laughs. Its core constituency: mothers, who have been receptive to her policies of defeating the new security legislation, expanding community hospitals and domestic violence shelters and preventing Japan’s nuclear power plants from restarting. She recently started holding actual “green tea parties” during the day so moms could attend while their children are at school. Without mothers’ support, she says, she “can’t win.”
A more natural ideological ally for Fukushima than Ted Cruz’s cohort is of course Bernie Sanders, who she says she’s also watched — not only for his grassroots successes but also for his policies. She’s talking similar topics: making university more affordable and raising the minimum wage from about $8 an hour to $15. “I really admire Sanders; I’m reading his biography right now and I think his anti-disparity message would resonate in Japan,” she said. Nakano agrees that the SDP could tap into its latent local support to galvanize a national movement. Without a strong coalition behind her nationally though, she faces a steep climb. Her efforts have, Nakano says, ”made her a very effective opposition leader but unfortunately for her, she’s a one-woman show right now.”
“Of course I want to be prime minister,” Fukushima says when asked about her ambitions — but she amends that she’d support the right candidate who holds her values. She’d be a long-shot candidate, but anything can happen, said Nakano. “It doesn’t look very promising at the moment, but who was able to predict the Bernie Sanders phenomenon in the States?”