Japan Debate: “From Mere Guile to Demagoguery”


Recently, I wrote an article for the Washington Post about a disturbing trend in Japan in which prominent voices on the journalistic right, intentionally or unintentionally, are animating the activities of ideological zealots and thugs. Right wingism in Japan has been around for a very long time, but recently they have successfully achieved censorship, both overt and self-imposed, of some of Japan’s blue chip intellectuals, business leaders, and think tanks.
My article used as one of its vignettes a battle between the Sankei Shimbun‘s well-known editorialist Yoshihisa Komori, based in Washington and someone I have known for many years, and a set of public intellectuals and retired government officials at the Japan Institute for International Affairs. Not only I have written about this, but many others including Roger Pulvers in today’s Japan Times and a couple of weeks ago under the authorship of Sheila Smith and Brad Glosserman.

In the spirt of free and open debate, I am posting Komori’s full response to my own views here. While I think he is strident and escalates what is a disturbing trend in Japan to a personal battle, ignoring his own possible role — advertent or inadvertent — in what is occuring in Japan’s intellectual environment, I do intend to take him at his word that he is going to vigorously defend inquiry, vigorously defend open society, and vigorously condemn those who attempt to stifle serious debate. (In English, this is the letter — as yet unpublished — that Komori sent to the Washington Post.)
In my view, Komori’s accusations against numerous American academics and some Japanese of being “anti-Japanese” in their writing borders on the worst kind of defamation of credible intellectuals and are not consistent with the kind of free inquiry he says he too is calling for. But I have no interest in tit-for-tat gaming or personalization of a practice that is far more substantial than a couple of people nudging each other hard over tactics. If Komori is a defender of open inquiry, then fine — I accept that. Let’s meet and debate what open inquiry looks like and what it does not.
Although I think Yoshihisa Komori is substantially more open-minded than former Senator Jesse Helms or our current UN Ambassador John Bolton, the Helms and Bolton practice of sugar-coating the most virulent form of pugnacious hyper-nationalism with trappings of patriotism — and in Helms’ case a genteel and courtly manner — could not fully disguise their desire to shut down their opponent’s rights to compete against them in our civil society. Komori is different than these practiced politicians — and it is true that he is a journalist who advises the up-and-coming Prime Minister. There is some difference.
Yoshihisa Komori has mastered the art of following Japanese government money — which is the primary funder of most academics around the world on all topics Japanese — and forcing the question of whether some respective research is in the true national interests of Japan. His very senior level access as an acknowledged advisor to Koizumi successor Shinzo Abe means that he and his views matter at Japan’s highest levels. Rather than defending process and robust debate, Komori is insisting that Japanese taxpayer money be rewarded or withheld depending on the political correctness of the “outcome” of research and inquiry — not the process or of broad debate that moves beyond official blessing.
Komori has a point. We have had that same kind of debate in America over the funding of the arts and even of academia. Some time ago, some ideological zealots wanted to impose a “patriot test” against the writing and research of American academics doing writing on and researching topics related to the Middle East.
In my book, this is NOT defending free inquiry and it reflects an extraordinarily cynical view about the use of taxpayer funds to promote “new ideas” and “new directions” — something Japan is in great need of. If Japanese intellectuals were ignoring Komori and others on the right, there would be no argument — but that is not happening.
I should state a couple of things for the record.
First, I wholeheartedly applaud the Sankei Shimbun for its condemnation of the Kato home arson. I noted this in my blog on August 27th — and I do believe that the Sankei Shimbun is an excellent paper, though one that its own editors and journalists have acknowledged to me plays to the conservative-right. I have been a guest of Fujisankei Communications and have been interviewed numerous times by various parts of the Fujisankei conglomerate, including the Sankei Shimbun. It was, of course, Fujisankei Communications who set the gold standard for the multi-million dollar speaking fees some retired US presidents could expect after Ronald Reagan’s post-presidential trip to Japan hosted by the conglomerate.
I also should say that I have known Yoshihisa Komori for years, and I have frequently enjoyed and benefited from his candor. On the matter of historical memory — a topic I have written and published on on occasion — I invited Komori to speak at the New America Foundation and learned a great deal from him regarding the obsession with Japanese war atrocities and behavior that dominates a disproportionate share of Chinese school textbooks.
However, I differ from Komori — and disagree with him — regarding his role in this debate. He is one of the key players in the “historical memory” franchise and rather than working hard to open that debate in a constructive way, Komori has both written about his concerns of other’s research — and has allegedly shared his concerns with those at the helm of the Japanese government, who have injudiciously moved to suspend or threaten the suspension of funding for important intellectual programs and exchanges.
I hold nothing personal against Komori — though he may not feel the same about me. He could be playing a far more constructive role than he is working to bolster debate, in which he is a participant, and emphasizing many of the principles below in his critique of me.
This issue is far larger than Komori and Clemons or any others shocked by the effectiveness of Komori’s assault on Masaru Tamamoto and his writing and work at the Japan Institute for International Affairs. it is one about the future of Japan’s brand of nationalism. I look forward to potentially discussing — in the measured and civil tones Komori claims to prefer — these matters with him and others in the future.
I acknowledge that we should accept Yoshihisa Komori’s assertion that he is a defender of open society. I look forward to helping to watch whether in the term of his friend Shinzo Abe’s premiership whether Komori works to embrace debate about Japan’s evolving national identity and memory — or whether he uses his considerable bully pulpit and his role as an advisor to Abe to punish and constrain those he feels are at odds with Japan’s increasingly hawkish conservative national mantra.
Yoshihisa Komori’s response to my article did not run in the Washington Post so he posted on his own website:

To the Editor
The Washington Post
1150 15th Street, NW
Washington, DC
In an op/ed by Steve Clemons (The Rise of Japan’s Thought Police, Sunday, August 27, 2006; Page B02), the author crosses the line from mere guile to demagoguery with a grossly unfair personal attack on my integrity. In statements that are completely untrue, he suggests that my newspaper and I are part of “an increasingly militant group of extreme right wing activists who yearn for a return to 1930’s style militarism.” Clemons writes that “Komori has no direct connection to those guilty of the most recent
(terrorist) acts, but he’s not unaware that his words frequently animate them — and that their actions in turn lend fear-fueled power to his pronouncements, helping them silence debate.” In this, he is accusing me, a newspaper reporter and commentator, of deliberately and willfully trying to inspire acts of terror in Japan. He cites incidents entirely unrelated to me or my newspaper including the recent deplorable act of arson that burned the house of Koichi Kato, a known political opponent of Prime Minister Koizumi.
To set the record straight, my newspaper immediately published an editorial severely condemning this act. Mr. Kato personally expressed his gratitude to the editors. In the past Sankei Shimbun also criticized any violence as a means of addressing political issues. If there are any activists in Japan who yearn for a return to 1930’s style militarism, both Sankei and I would denounce and oppose such efforts. Mr. Clemons also mischaracterized my regular newspaper column published on Aug. 12 in which I reported on a government-funded institute using Japanese taxpayer funds to dispatch non-objective criticism and misrepresentations of Japanese people, government policies and leaders, written exclusively in English for an overseas audience. My column maintains a calm and objective tone throughout and seeks no apology from anyone.
Modern Japan is democratic, peaceful, and committed to the rule of law. It is also a strong ally of the U.S. The Sankei Shimbun is one of Japan’s mainstream newspapers with daily circulation of approximately 2.2 million copies distributed nationally. There is nothing “ultra” conservative about my writing or the paper, in contrast to Mr. Clemons’ claim. For example, our newspaper is a leader in editorial support for Japan’s cooperation with the American effort to fight global terrorism. Although I frequently criticize government policy myself, in over thirty years of reporting I have never once advocated Japan’s return to militarism. If Mr. Clemons does not like my views, that is fair game. But he should not forget that I also have a right to express my views and that is not an assault on free speech. I have consistently criticized moves that would in any way undermine open government, free speech and multi-party democracy. I fervently condemn violence against anyone for their political views, including those who share the views of Mr. Clemons. Mr. Clemons has no basis to imply otherwise.
Sincerely yours,
Yoshihisa Komori
Editor-at-Large (Washington)
The Sankei Shimbun

I will be in Japan in mid-October and look forward to addressing the problem that I discussed in my Washington Post article then.

— Steve Clemons


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