Anne Frank’s account of the two years she spent hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam during World War II, before ultimately dying in a concentration camp, is one of the most well-known books in Japan. After being translated in Japanese in 1952, it became a best-seller. Even those Japanese who haven’t read the book know of it through school lessons, comic books and animated films, and approximately 30,000 Japanese tourists visit the Anne Frank House annually in the Netherlands.
The Rev. Makoto Otsuka, who runs the Holocaust Education Center in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, explains Anne Frank’s popularity, calling her “… a powerful symbol for peace in Japan. That’s why her story resonates with so many Japanese, who have suffered the horrors of war.”
Thus the recent discovery that more than 300 copies of “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” and other Holocaust-related publications had been damaged in Tokyo and Yokohama libraries has shocked the nation. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, which launched a full-scale investigation on Feb. 24, should leave no stone unturned in its effort to find those people responsible for these despicable acts of vandalism.
The power of the written word has been known for millennia — it was in the seventh century B.C. that Assyrian sage Ahiqar coined the phrase “The word is mightier than the sword.” Censorship is a hallmark of authoritarianism; freedom of expression is a pillar of democracy. From ancient China to Nazi Germany to oppressive regimes today, the destruction of books to crush the ideas and ideologies that they contain has all too often been a part of mankind’s history.
In this respect, the vandalism of “The Diary of a Young Girl” and other Holocaust-related works — an act intended both to send an ideological message and to prevent people from accessing these books — is an attack on Japanese democracy itself.
And these malicious acts couldn’t have come at a worse time, when Abe administration policies and actions — including its efforts to tighten government control over school textbook selections, to influence the content of NHK broadcasts, to dilute the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9, to visit Yasukuni Shrine, and to re-examine the Japanese government’s past apology to “comfort women” forced to work in the Japanese military’s wartime brothels — are raising eyebrows and concern overseas.
Japan has virtually no history of anti-Semitism. In fact, in 1940, Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara famously helped thousands of Jews flee the Nazis in Lithuania. In addition, the Japanese government provided thousands of Jews refuge in Japan and in Japanese-controlled territory in China and Manchuria in the 1930s and ’40s, and rejected requests from its wartime ally Germany to persecute them.
But the destruction of the Holocaust-related books, together with the Abe government’s efforts to “break away from the postwar regime,” have damaged Japan’s reputation and given the world the impression that it is becoming a less tolerant, less peaceful country.
Calling the vandalism “shameful,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has stated that Japan will not tolerate such events. The Israeli Embassy in Tokyo has reportedly been deluged with apologetic phone calls from citizens, demonstrating the mainstream public’s revulsion toward these acts of vandalism. Having established a special task force, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department is treating the case with the gravity it merits.
Most of the destroyed Anne Frank-related books have now been replaced thanks to the generosity of the Israeli Embassy, Japan’s Jewish community and at least one anonymous donor. Some libraries, however, fearful that the new books will be vandalized, are taking security measures to protect them. Such steps, while understandable, should not be necessary in a democracy. It is our hope that the police will soon apprehend those responsible for these cowardly, despicable acts. And that the Abe administration will lead by example in demonstrating that intolerance and censorship have no place in democratic Japan.