Is Japanese cinema sinking into a self-censorship swamp?


Special To The Japan Times

One great thing about living in Japan is the consideration, or omoiyari, people here commonly show for others. My newspaper delivery guy climbs the 25 steps to my front door and deposits a copy of The Japan Times in my mailbox every morning, rain or shine. His colleagues in the U.S. — my home country — might toss the paper from a moving vehicle in the general direction of a customer’s front yard. Both are just doing their jobs, but my guy considerately spares me effort (and exercise), at no profit to himself.

Jishuku, often translated as “self-restraint,” can also be framed as an expression of consideration. When Emperor Hirohito was dying of terminal cancer in 1988, many journalists knew the truth, but the story did not run on the front pages of Japan’s major newspapers. It could be argued that the purpose of this media jishuku was to spare not only the Emperor himself, but the Imperial Family and the Japanese people in general from shock and distress.

But jishuku has come to have another, more troubling meaning: self-censorship. Following the Emperor Hirohito’s death on Jan. 7, 1989, normal TV programming was suspended for days in favor of eulogistic documentaries and reverential news shows, while businesses closed and events were canceled by the thousands. I thought at the time it was uncanny — as though the postwar period, with its Occupation-supported freedom of expression, never happened.

Jishuku is not limited to Japan’s Imperial system, however. Instead, the media, including the supposedly free-spirited “talents” it hosts, has long practiced a type of self-censorship that is less an expression of consideration than a knuckling under to corporate and governmental power and, now, the angry voices on the Internet.

After iconic actor Ken Takakura died on Nov. 10, 2014, the Tokyo Shimbun noted that the theme song of “Abashiri Bangaichi (Abashiri Prison),” the 1965 movie that became his breakout hit, had been subject to media jishuku since the 1970s. Recorded by Takakura himself and based on a folk song, the tune became a hit, but radio stations and TV broadcasters kept it off the air for decades because its lyrics were deemed to be supportive of criminal acts. This was done under the cover of a voluntary ban by the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan (Minporen) on songs with “problematic lyrics.” Minporen has long since dropped the lyrics-restricting rule, but as film director Tatsuya Mori told the Tokyo Shimbun, “The tendency of the media to self-regulate (free expression) hasn’t changed at all.”

Examples of similar jishuku have multiplied since the end of 2014, beginning with popular comedy duo Bakusho Mondai and veteran lead singer for the Southern All Stars, Keisuke Kuwata, making abject public apologies after venturing some mild criticisms of authority.

Bakusho Mondai’s Yuji Tanaka had complained to a TBS radio audience on Jan. 7 that public broadcaster NHK had nixed the duo’s proposed political gags for a New Year’s show. Earlier, at a Dec. 28 concert with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in attendance, Kuwata had mocked Abe’s decision to call a snap election last fall. Also, in a performance on NHK’s New Year’s Eve show “Kohaku Utagassen (Red and White Song Contest),” Kuwata sung other lyrics some interpreted as critical of Abe’s conservative-leaning administration.

Amid the ensuing controversy, both Kuwata and Tanaka apologized and recanted.

These are mainstream talents working in a media environment that is hypersensitive to anything resembling controversy. It’s hardly surprising that, following their slip-ups, they would quickly toe the agency or broadcaster line. Nonetheless, given the political nature of their mini-scandals, with much of the online outrage coming from the far-right side of the political spectrum, it was hard not to hear free-speech alarm bells ringing.

Those bells have gotten louder with the local media reaction to the capture of two Japanese hostages by the Islamic State group, climaxing with the death of freelance video journalist Kenji Goto on Feb. 1. In response, The Fuji TV network pushed back the broadcast of an episode of the anime “Ansatsu Kyoshitsu (Assassination Classroom)” that featured a knife. A Jan. 31 broadcast of the “Tantei Kageki Milky Holmes TD (Detective Opera Milky Holmes TD)” animation series about the adventures of girl detectives was also postponed for its ransom-themed story.

Taken individually, these examples may sound minor, but as filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda notes in a petition he has been circulating online, “There has been strong societal pressure in Japan for broadcasters and others in the mass media to practice self-restraint (jishuku) and avoid any criticism of how the government has handled the hostage crisis.”

According to jishuku proponents, good Japanese citizens must pull together during this national crisis and keep quiet about their doubts or objections.

“As Japan entered World War II, this same logic was used to impose the concept of self-restraint on Japanese society and stifle dissent,” Soda writes. His petition now has more than 2,700 names to date, including those of composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, director Hirokazu Koreeda and journalist Keiko Tsuyama.

What of Soda’s own observational documentaries, including his “Senkyo (Campaign)” duology, which skewers Japan’s Byzantine election system? Both found distribution in Japan, the first opening in 2007 and the second in 2013.

In fact, Soda’s chosen genre, the documentary, is increasingly being taken up by filmmakers as the cost of production tools declines. By now the number of documentaries about the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster has soared past the 100 mark and is still climbing. No “self-restraint” there.

Elsewhere in the local film industry, however, the jishuku phenomenon is alive and well. Distributor Toho-Towa has indefinitely delayed the release of Angelina Jolie’s hit WWII-themed biopic “Unbroken” following complaints from “Net uyoku” (Internet rightwingers) that the film’s depictions of the torture of a U.S. airman by his Japanese captor are both false and anti-Japanese. Controversy can often be a box-office plus, but it can also create problems, ranging from noisy protests to the massive cyberattack that last year brought Sony Pictures to its knees. Jishuku — in this case, silently shelving a film — is the path of least resistance for nervous distributors and theater owners.

Another easy path is not making films — especially multiplex films — on sensitive subjects, beginning with the Imperial system and continuing down the list of topics that might upset anyone from anonymous Net uyoku to prominent politicians. Meanwhile, indie filmmakers, controversial or not, are being squeezed by a declining number of venues willing to screen their films and dwindling sources of funding to make them in the first place.

Also, efforts to enforce cinematic jishuku are hardly limited to the industry and its environs. When Soda was trying to film a speechifying LDP candidate for “Campaign 2,” a campaign worker told him to cease and desist.

“Be a grown-up,” she said. Soda, recording the public event in a public space, bluntly refused. That wasn’t very considerate of him, was it?

And in a society like Japan’s that values group harmony, which today more and more means singing from the same self-edited media lyric sheet, “childish” behavior like Soda’s is less and less tolerated.

As the Nikkan Gendai, one of the noisier tabloids, noted in a Jan. 18 story on the jishuku trend, “Japan can no longer laugh at North Korea when it comes to freedom of speech.”

  • ARUDOU Debito

    Excellent article, Mark. Thanks for it.

  • Russell Pustejovsky

    An otherwise excellent article is marred by one glaring error: “…as though the postwar period, with its Occupation-supported freedom of expression, never happened.”

    The Occupation was characterized by extensive censorship by the Allied powers of many subjects, from the occupiers themselves, to the new Japanese government, the War Crimes Tribunals, social unrest, even war-time atrocities committed by the IJA. Not only was discussion of these and many other subjects forbidden, even mentioning that there was censorship was forbidden.

    The Americans may have written freedom of expression into the new Japanese constitution, but they certainly didn’t think it would have to start until after they left.

    See John Dower’s “Embracing Defeat” for extensive coverage of this.