The Return of “Thought Control” in Japan?


(Yasukuni Shrine where the souls of Japan’s soldiers who died on the battlefield — as well as WWII class A war criminals — are deified)
The Washington Post has just published an article of mine,”The Rise of Japan’s Thought Police,” that will appear in tomorrow’s Outlook pages, but which is available on the web now.
The subject of the Japan-focused piece is the rise in intimidation tactics — verbal and sometimes violent — that hawkish nationalists in Japan are directing at intellectuals, journalists, business leaders, and even some politicians who have questioned Prime Minister Koizumi’s flirtation with symbols of Japan’s past manic militarism.
Last week, I wrote about an incident that triggered the oped earlier on The Washington Note. My latest piece starts:

Anywhere else, it might have played out as just another low-stakes battle between policy wonks. But in Japan, a country struggling to find a brand of nationalism that it can embrace, a recent war of words between a flamboyant newspaper editorialist and an editor at a premier foreign-policy think tank was something far more alarming: the latest assault in a campaign of right-wing intimidation of public figures that is squelching free speech and threatening to roll back civil society.

This battle between the editor-at-large of the Sankei Shimbun, Yoshihisa Komori, and Masaru Tamamoto, the editor of Commentary published by the Japan Institute for International Affairs has begun to receive wide-spread attention on blogs, in think tanks, in academic chat room focused on Japan, and in general discussion.
Some of the other resources to understand what is at stake are a PacNet forum article by Sheila Smith and Brad Glosserman, this blog post by Gen Kanai, the Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum on the website of the National Bureau for Asian Research, and this excellent site assembled by William Sturgeon that has actually recreated the materials (from cached archives) of the now suspended JIIA Commentary website.
I think that my Washington Post article will continue to underscore the seriousness of healthy debate and discussion in Japan about evolving national identity and nationalism issues.
It is important to understand that this battle is not just a war of words. On many levels, that would be worth applauding if the debate was robust — even if it was nasty. But serious violence and harrassment is beginning to envelope those leading lights in Japan trying to promote healthy national discussion.
There are exceptions to this. The Yomiuri Shimbun, mostly a conservative paper in Japan has prepared an outstanding series of articles on “war memory”. The project is headed by Akira Saito, a former Washington Bureau Chief of the Yomiuri who now heads the Yomiuri Research Institute. He is an internationalist and knows that Japan needs to find a new, healthy nationalism that will also be compatible with Japan’s international relations.
I would also be remiss in not applauding the Sankei Shimbun — the very paper in which the attacks on Tamamoto and so many others noted in this article began in writing — for criticizing the burning of Koichi Kato’s parental home. While Prime Minister Koizumi and his likely successor in September Shinzo Abe have said absolutely nothing about this arson incident against one of Japan’s major politicians — it was refreshing to see the Sankei speak out against this.
But the trends remain deeply troubling and fear is running high among many of Japan’s best and brightest who now prefer generally to stay away from controversial topics rather than suffer substantial consequences trying to help Japan work through some of its biggest identity challenges.
Here is a bit from the piece that focuses on some of the other incidents that have occurred in recent years:

Emboldened by the recent rise in nationalism, an increasingly militant group of extreme right-wing activists who yearn for a return to 1930s-style militarism, emperor-worship and “thought control” have begun to move into more mainstream circles — and to attack those who don’t see things their way.
Just last week, one of those extremists burned down the parental home of onetime prime ministerial candidate Koichi Kato, who had criticized Koizumi’s decision to visit Yasukuni this year. Several years ago, the home of Fuji Xerox chief executive and Chairman Yotaro “Tony” Kobayashi was targeted by handmade firebombs after he, too, voiced the opinion that Koizumi should stop visiting Yasukuni. The bombs were dismantled, but Kobayashi continued to receive death threats. The pressure had its effect. The large business federation that he helps lead has withdrawn its criticism of Koizumi’s hawkishness toward China and his visits to Yasukuni, and Kobayashi now travels with bodyguards.
In 2003, then-Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka discovered a time bomb in his home. He was targeted for allegedly being soft on North Korea. Afterward, conservative Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara contended in a speech that Tanaka “had it coming.”
Another instance of free-thinking-meets-intimidation involved Sumiko Iwao, an internationally respected professor emeritus at Keio University. Right-wing activists threatened her last February after she published an article suggesting that much of Japan is ready to endorse female succession in the imperial line; she issued a retraction and is now reportedly lying low.

Japan does need a new nationalism — but this nationalism that is silencing moderates is not characteristic of either a healthy nationalism or a healthy ally.
— Steve Clemons
Editor’s Note: For those of you interested in communicating your views about the hasty agreement to suspend JIIA Commentary and to censor ALL of the information on that website, please communicate your views to JIIA President Yukio Satoh through this website contact page, as yet not suspended.
— Steve Clemons


15 comments on “The Return of “Thought Control” in Japan?

  1. David Kelver says:

    It’s good for me to see a growing debate in Japan about the steady rise of nationalism. As a non-Japanese working in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo I am constantly bombarded by the messages broadcast from the black trucks circling the train station. The problem of rising nationalism extends far beyond the numbers of the active nationalists driving around in the trucks. The deeper problem lies in the general populations’ lack of protest against a movement which most educated people here (and there are truly many educated people in Japan) oppose. For decades the average Japanese citizen has not become politically active, and the general acceptance that some things should not be disscussed so as to maintain social harmony does nothing to tilt the scales back into an acceptable position.
    All countries have nationalism, and truth be told it has many positive effects on the country. But a rising tide of ignorant nationalism in a country where speaking out against the government has never been acceptable is a scary thought for a nation in Japan’s position.
    Here’s a true story. I met an old man at a hanami party two years ago who spoke good English and wanted to tell me stories of his youth. I was utterly shocked when he informed me that in the 1960’s during a violent protest in Tokyo against the Vietnam war he through a malatov cocktail. Fortunately, no one was injured (at least according to his account). Fascinated by his burst of anger I asked him if he was really that angry at the war. He told me that he didn’t even care about the war. His anger, strangely enough, was at his university. But, as it would have been unacceptable for him to protest against the group he was truly upset with, he outletted his frustration on a third party.
    Stories like this are why I fear rising nationalism in Japan. The nail that sticks out here will be hammered down.


  2. len says:

    please don’t Slander Komori.


  3. TF says:

    Mr. Clemons
    I found a responce from Mr. Komori on one of Sankei’s web cite to your editorial on The Washington post.
    The article saids you have serious logical flaws in your editorial.
    I am looknig forward you to posting quick responce for Mr. Komori’s opinion ither on this blog or on The Washingonpost.
    Since you know japan “well”, it’s easy for you to read this article even it was written Japanese.


  4. Jason says:

    >the Prime Minister of Japan not to see something
    >after a serious arson attack against a political
    >rival is amazing
    On August 28, Koizumi condemned the arson attack. He has been on a vacation from the day of the attack until August 24.
    The suspect, found unconcious near Kato’s house, has not been arrested until August 29. The government was simply careful not to make a comment about the possibly innocent man.


  5. parrot says:

    If there is one country that could assemble a nuclear arsenal in record time, it’s Japan. The militarists in Japan though are likely to remain fringe though since the Japanese economy is almost wholy dependent on oil…oil that Japan itself has very few reserves of. So, should we be worried? I doubt it–only the criminally insane would try to bring Japan militarily to the fore in an age where controlling significant oil resources is likely beyond the capabilities of that country. My guess is that China (and obviously other countries historically occupied by Japan) would never allow Japan to get those capabilities. However, the fact that Japan might attempt that might drive people into the Chinese sphere diplomatically.
    It all sounds like a very dicey game that is being played. My hope is that the age of oil ends with peace and not war. And that’s what we all need to work towards–peace. It is very sad to see Japan possibly moving away from trying to maintain peace…let’s hope the trend reverses…as militarism in Japan has little chance of ever succeeding internationally and the costs domestically for all concerned would likely be horrific.


  6. Marian says:

    The Japanese themselves label everything either “left” — as opposition to the high-profile visits of Prime Minister Koizumi to the Yasukuni Shrine is inevitably labled — or right.
    There are over 2.5 million kami — not exactly souls — of war dead enshrined in Yasukuni, including the 14 Class A World War II criminals, of whom 7 were executed. It is significant that this group was secretly enshrined just after Japan and China officially resumed relations in 1978, more than thirty years after Japan’s surrender. Koizumi’s arguments that he is praying for peace, and remembering all war dead, is simply not credible. He is clearly pandering to the right. Though his reasons for doing so are not completely clear, he is completely convinced of his strategy. All the arguments about disenshrining the 14 Class A war criminals, or building another shrine to honor all the war dead, are not going anywhere. However, within the Yasukuni complex, there is a small, apparently-ignored area – Chinreisha, The Spirit Pacifying Shrine, a hidden structure behind a locked fence – which does indeed have a place to honor all the war dead, both Japanese and Allied. Koizumi and his successors should be encouraged to make their high-profile visits there, instead. And, proper apologies should be made to China, South Korea, the Philippines and other victims of Japan’s attacks and war crimes in World War II.


  7. John says:

    “And who, pray tell, has been silenced by the Right’s violence in the USA? (dwpettelli)” Here the Right realizes that violence is not needed for effective intimidation. Think about the media and opposition politicians. Does anyone remember what they used to be like in the 1990’s? Their cowed behavior is so widespread and covers too many issues to be simply explained away by 911. Something else is at work.
    Also, the Pflame outing has often been explained in part as an attempt to intimidate CIA agents and keep them from blowing the whistle.


  8. C. David Noziglia says:

    One side note this article brings up: The hopelessly useless labeling system that insists that everthing and everybody, everywhere, is either “left” or “right” as if those words had any real meaning. Steve is somewhat guilty of this, but the posts are badly blinded by insistance on these anachronistic and misleading labels.
    There is probably little in common between the nationalistic Japanese who are intimidating those who disagree with them with physical violence, and the corporate shills and religious zealots in America who can ignore anyone who disagrees with them because other points of view are simply left out of the media (and, practically, government).
    That’s the only point I’ll make in this forum. Can we come up with some other way of speaking and writing about these people that leaves out the facile, misleading shorthand of “left/right”?


  9. dwpittelli says:

    And who, pray tell, has been silenced by the Right’s violence in the USA? Perhaps because I wasn’t paying enough attention, I missed the stabbing of Michael Moore, the fire-bombing of Murtha’s Pennsylvania house, the beating-up of John Kerry.
    The above example make the comparable events of Europe (politicians and artists killed, threatened and silenced for opposing Islamism) look pretty insignificant, since that violence came from religious minorities, who are by definition oppressed, of the “left,” and thus not too scary.


  10. Steve Clemons says:

    KN — you are simply wrong. I have substantial background on Japan and things political there. I think that you are underestimating the significance of what is going on because while you are correct that a fringe right has always been lurking in Japan (as I write), the problem is now that they are succeeding in getting major players to censor themselves. JIIA is a significant institution, so too the Keizai Doyukai. To get these places to submit means something — to get Sumiko Iwao to write a retraction in Japan Echo — for the Prime Minister of Japan not to see something after a serious arson attack against a political rival is amazing. What is different today is that leading politicians — in power — are giving body language consent.
    That’s what is different. When was the last time you saw CSIS Pacific Forum or the East West Center get stirred up over an internal issue like this. Neither is prone to sensationalism.
    Thanks for your comment — but I do believe, strongly, that you are wrong and missing entirely the importance of knocking back these outrageous zealots now.
    Steve Clemons


  11. Carroll says:

    O.K…I emailed my opinion (protest)…
    And KN…”You are attempting to conflate the rise of a more assertive and ‘nationalist’ political consciousness with fringe far-right extremists who are of little consequence.”…
    Er…isn’t that what just happened in the US?..looks to me that we got taken over by some of the same “fringe far right extremist of little consequences”..that were of no consequence either, until they got elected and in positions of power.


  12. Pissed Off American says:

    Anyone familiar with Japanese society can attest to this. Japan is in no danger of regressing to a militaristic society, unless its hand is forced by the aggressive nuclear powers that surround it to the north and west. One’s time might be better spent worrying about China and Russia than about Japan…
    Posted by KN
    Well hey, its WASHINGTON that scares the shit outa me.


  13. KN says:

    With all due respect, you seem to be intentionally obscuring the political situation in Japan.
    Your allegation that ‘right-wing Japanese nationalism’ (if that’s what you prefer to call self-assertive politics) indicates a return to ‘1930s-style militarism’ is typically sensationalist.
    You are attempting to conflate the rise of a more assertive and ‘nationalist’ political consciousness with fringe far-right extremists who are of little consequence.
    In linking isolated incidents of intimidation and violence with the broader shift in Japanese politics, a shift that is supported by a large segment of the population mind you, you manage to completely miss the underlying causes of this change. There a numerous internal and external factors underlying this change, amongst them the perception that US military power in Asia is declining, hence a return to a rather ancient struggle for regional supremacy.
    Just who are these “militant right-wing activists”? You mention a number of prominent public figures and yet qualify in passing that there is no direct connection between their words and the actions of a select minority.
    I might further add that while Japan was a militaristic society in the 1930s, it was in the midst of a long drawn out war on the Chinese mainland. During wartime, societies are militaristic, and as one might expect the same holds true for the European powers and the United States during the 1940s and beyond.
    Just because Japan is becoming more self-assertive , and consequently perhaps more intimidating, there is no practical reason to worry about any ‘return’ to “emperor-worship and thought-control”.
    Anyone familiar with Japanese society can attest to this. Japan is in no danger of regressing to a militaristic society, unless its hand is forced by the aggressive nuclear powers that surround it to the north and west. One’s time might be better spent worrying about China and Russia than about Japan…


  14. Den Valdron says:

    Well, basically, thats my point. The mighty wurlitzer of the right does the same job of suppressing or marginalizing dissent.


  15. John says:

    Fortunately the neo-cons haven’t reached these depths yet, although the article recalls for me Lynne Cheney and Joe Lieberman’s involvement in creating a blacklist for the American Council of College Trustees and alumni, which released a report after 9/11 in which 117 professors and students were accused of unpatriotic activity for having made statements on U.S. campuses that questioned or opposed the antiterrorist military campaign in Afghanistan. As you said, Steve, “silencing moderates is not characteristic of…a healthy nationalism.” Bush’s War on Dissent relies mostly on character assassination via a compliant media to achieve the same ends.


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