Japan’s media grapple with free speech, faith and immigration after Charlie Hebdo attack


What does the Japanese media have to say about the recent events in France? Do you want straight news, analysis or opinion editorials? The weeklies have got something for everyone.

Take the approach to taboo topics, for instance, as considered in Shukan Shincho (Jan. 22): “The notion that anything goes, as long as it doesn’t clash with the law, is not understood here in Japan,” an unnamed Japanese reporter says to pseudonymous columnist Yan Den Man. “If legal controls to restrain (content matter) are involved, it’s smarter to be proactive and decide on rules to follow beforehand. The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association has issued these kinds of standards in its ethical mission statement.”

The reporter is shown a particularly vulgar portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad from an earlier issue of Charlie Hebdo (forgive us, readers, for sparing you the details) and invited to comment.

“This?” he replies. “Well, I think it’s disgusting. I expect many French people also were repelled by it. . . . Just because the demonstrators on Jan. 11 held up signs reading ‘Je suis Charlie,’ doesn’t necessarily mean they approved of everything that was run in the magazine. At most, they were just criticizing terrorism.”

On the subject of the clash between religious beliefs and free speech, diplomat Masaki Kunieda sees parallels between the current problems in Europe and what Japan underwent in the 1990s.

“It resembles the problems with Aum Shinrikyo that previously occurred in Japan,” he tells Shukan Gendai (Jan. 31), referring to the doomsday cult behind the deadly gassing of the Tokyo subway and other attacks. “When people become psychologically unnerved, extremist views may arise that incite them to violence, by making them want to wreck what they perceive as the established order.”

Weekly Playboy (Feb. 2), concerned with what makes the Paris incident so disturbing, observes that up to now, acts of terrorism in Europe and other parts of the world had mainly involved random killings, such as by setting off explosives in places where many people had gathered. (This would include suicide bombings.) But the Charlie Hebdo incident represented a “new type” of terrorism that had focused on a specific target — a publisher. And the attack succeeded despite the presence of a police bodyguard.

A Japanese “contractor” with experience in anti-terrorism work, identified only by the name “A,” was quoted as saying: “They coldly executed a policeman with a single shot, and made their getaway by car. Their fighting skills were head-and-shoulders above the level of so-called HGTs (home-grown terrorists). Then while the authorities hunted the attackers, a second attacker killed a policewoman and then the following day killed four hostages at a Jewish market. This demonstrates they have the ability to launch dōji-tahatsu (simultaneous, multiple) acts of terrorism.

“I feel that terrorist techniques have moved to the next stage,” the contractor continues. “We’re calling these HGT-US, with the ‘U’ standing for ‘U-turn,’ in the sense that they go abroad for military training and then return to their home country. And the ‘S’ stands for ‘sleeper mode,’ in which several dozen groups are believed to have already infiltrated countries in Europe and North America.”

In the future he predicts that the HGT are likely to continue singling out soft (i.e. civilian) targets as opposed to police, the military or their facilities. One possible target, he speculates, would be France’s high-speed intercity train, the TGV.

Contractor A also appears familiar with world history. He notes that in the early 1920s, Italian Gen. Giulio Douhet (1869-1930) proposed theories of strategic bombing in aerial warfare that had a major influence on the conduct of World War II.

Douhet understood that victory was achieved by command of the air. He also believed in bombing’s effect on civilian morale. Because destroying a country’s “vital centers” would break people’s will, this tactic would ultimately render armies superfluous, because aircraft could overfly them to attack an enemy’s government and industry.

While al-Qaida and the Islamic State do not have the means to control the air to attack their enemy’s home front, they can make use of the Internet and LCC (low-cost carriers), i.e., ubiquitous communications and inexpensive transportation that gives them the capability to engage in strategic terrorism.

“The acts of terrorism in France should be seen as counterattacks against the European and U.S. air raids on IS and al-Qaida,” he explains.

But how does Japan fit into this equation? Aera (Jan. 26) echoed the fear that “Immigrants from Islamic countries might become ‘time bombs.’ “

According to a source in Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency, “The various (extremist groups) . . . are exchanging a wealth of bomb-making and publicity know-how, and the members lend out weapons or fighters to one another.”

This growing ability of extremist groups to network may empower them further. If so, then the Charlie Hebdo attack may be the opening volley in a protracted war.

“Among the countries that operate jointly with the U.S. military, such as Canada, Australia, the U.K. and France, anything might happen,” says Osamu Miyata, director of the Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan. “Japan is a military ally of the U.S. but has not been involved in killings in the Middle East, so it has yet to be targeted. But things have come to the point where it’s not somebody else’s problem any more.”

Aera is aware that in Japan as well, impassioned debates are occurring over which deserves priority: the freedom of expression or sensibilities toward the feelings of Muslims. “This year,” it concludes, “is fast becoming one in which each of us needs to ask how to engage with Islam.”

Shukan Bunshun (Jan. 22) recalls that back in 2002-2003, Japan’s security agency discovered that Lionel Dumont, a former French soldier believed to have ties to al-Qaida, had entered Japan, intending to organize a terrorist cell. Dumont was arrested and extradited to France, where he is currently serving a 25-year sentence for various robberies and other crimes.

“Foreign Affairs Section 3 had been newly set up to deal with international terrorism,” an unnamed government source tells the magazine. “To deal with this, the manpower was increased to 70 staff, and then again to 150. During the 2008 G-8 summit meeting at Lake Toya in Hokkaido, a staff of 220 and 20 cars were present. And mosques at seven locations in greater Tokyo were put on 24-hour surveillance. Anyone who met with Dumont was also subjected to close scrutiny.”

The Abe administration’s policy of opening up Japan to more blue-collar foreigners to deal with the labor pinch might be ill-advised, the magazine suggests.

“If you look at what’s been going on in the world, you don’t need to point just to France — all immigration policies have failed,” says France-based journalist Yuji Hirooka. “Mainly countries bring in immigrants for cheap labor because they don’t want to pay higher wages. It’s inevitable that such people wind up at the bottom of society. It’s possible any of them could wind up like the Kouachi brothers,” Hirooka says, referring to the men who attacked Charlie Hebdo.

Japan, Shukan Bunshun concludes, would be well advised not to “follow in the same wheel ruts” (i.e., repeat the same mistakes) as France.

Mark Schreiber writes the Big in Japan column in The Japan Times on Sunday every other week. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Frido

    I believe Japan is ill advised not to let foreign workers into their country, especially in view of the ageing population. The analysis of the French situation and its translation into Japanese circumstances fails as its point of view is one-sided. A closer look to France reveals that many foreign workers support the economy and social system indispensably. Their absence would be a cause of major concern and would seriously compromise the country’s prosperity.
    The establishment of an ethnically monolithic society insinuates a seeming safety and may prove wrong in view of the precedence Aum Shinrikyo has given.
    Migration is not a problem per se. In the European Union, work force of different origin has been established in many countries, and both the country of origin and the host country benefit from this exchange, in economic, cultural and social terms. The ethnic exchange has to be considered also as an important peace-keeping factor since basically no conflicts have been raised since World War II among members of the European Union.
    Japan would be wise to consider this peace-engaging dynamics in relation to its closer neighbors in Far East (from my European point of view). As long as the cultural and ethnic roots are comparable there is a big chance to get a well balanced society even if the origin of its representatives is not 100% equal. It is not necessary for Japan just to start with the contemporary most demanding kind of immigration, the settlement of culturally incompatible people of the Middle East.

    • IanPG

      So people of the Middle East are culturally incompatible because of their geographic origin. How so? The the Middle East itself is culturally and religiously diverse. Should Jews and Christians from the Middle East not be allowed to immigrate to Japan?

      • Btd

        Jews and Christians are a dying minority in the ME, they’re getting literally killed everyday and the ones surviving emigrate to Israel or America because Europe is letting them down for the sake of even more Muslims….

      • Miki

        Japan government sponsors students from different countries to study in Japan. But the numbers are in control as well. I think Japan has learned a lesson from Islam terrorism when on 1991, a Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”, Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese professor was murdered in Ibaraki.

      • Btd

        Miki I agree totally.

    • Btd

      It’s never a question of immigration in Japan, immigration to this country is very easy BUT you’ve got to contribute. This country doesn’t need people that have no skills and no education. They need professionals and they’re getting them. Europe took in all and look how it is in trouble. The worst you can do is letting in big numbers of Muslims, they’ll turn your state upside down. Japan does well in keeping economic migrants out. Good on Japan, I love this country for the last 18 years I’ve been here.

      • http://zi.n.gy/ Kirt Seth Cathey

        Totally agree with this. Being a resident in Japan actually means something. In most cases, it means you have a degree, certification, or some kind of skill. The only exception are the unskilled foreigners that marry their way into the country.

      • IanPG

        What about highly-educated people with professional skills who happen to be Muslim, or from Muslim-majority countries. Should they be excluded based on their religion, despite their skills? There are many, many Muslim doctors, lawyers, and engineers in Europe with degrees from top schools.

      • Btd

        Of course not, you know what I was talking about don’t you…, look at Europe and you understand.. As for the type of professional you refer to, I guess if they’re needed and comply with Japan’s immigration rules they will of course get a visa.