Rare online outrage in Japan forces Abe to delay controversial bill

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Outbursts of political anger are rare in Japan. Street protests tend to be tame and some are led by the elderly. Government supporters have swamped online debate at times, and the Shinzo Abe administration has rarely listened to voices of dissent.

But now, the coronanvirus is reshaping how the Japanese talk about politics.

In an unusual outburst of political anger, millions of tweets by hundreds of thousands of netizens have helped force the government to delay a bill extending the retirement age for prosecutors, which critics say threatens judicial independence.

Opposition party lawmakers and others have also said the legislation was aimed at giving a retroactive legal basis to a decision to keep Tokyo prosecutor Hiromu Kurokawa, who is seen as close to Abe, in his post after he reached retirement age.

In a rare about-face, Abe delayed deliberations on the bill on Tuesday citing the “lack of public understanding,” and while there were other sources of opposition to the bill, experts say the unusual online anger was a major factor.

“I felt we had the power to raise our voices and it made me wonder why we hadn’t done any of this before,” Fuemi, the Twitter handle of an advertising specialist credited with setting off the campaign against the bill, told Reuters by phone.

Fuemi, a feminist who has more than 13,000 followers, was accused online of being a “spy” and “traitor” after the campaign. She declined to give her name for fear of harassment.

Fuemi said she was not interested in politics, but the coronavirus lockdown prompted her to listen to parliamentary proceedings more closely. She thought the debates on the bill “didn’t make sense” and kicked off the hashtag.

Fujio Toriumi, an associate professor of computational social science at the University of Tokyo, said the hashtag associated with the movement was tweeted 4.7 million times within three days by more than 500,000 Twitter accounts.

The campaign against the retirement age of prosecutors has been the strongest of online protests against a number of bills. Experts say these protests have allowed people to vent their frustration against the government as economic uncertainty mounts and the coronavirus epidemic drags on.

“It’s not just a protest against the bill, but against the forceful tactics Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sometimes employs,” said Masaaki Ito, media studies professor at Seikei Gakuen university in Tokyo.

Public support for Abe has slipped over what critics say is his clumsy handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which has tipped the world’s third-largest economy into recession.

According to a poll taken last week by the daily Asahi Shimbun, Abe’s approval ratings dropped eight points to 33 percent. Close to two-thirds of respondents opposed the retirement age bill.

But Abe has not conceded defeat and his justice minister has said the bill would be debated without any changes later.

“I think the government might try to get the law adopted again, but I don’t think I have the power to do another online protest like this,” Fuemi said.

“I’m just a worker, after all.”

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