Much more than mere vandalism

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.

  • phu

    If this had happened to the collected works of John Locke or Thomas Aquinas, it would’ve warranted a quick quip and nothing more. There would be no outrage, there would be no rants about anti-Europeanism, there would be no perceived need for people to apologize to someone’s embassy.

    Instead, it’s a book about a Jewish girl, and as soon as you so much as look wrong at anything from that religion/culture up go the cries of antisemitism!

    It’s sad that people are so shallow as to deface books — any books — but put it in perspective. Even if this were intended as some kind of attack on Judaism, it’s not going to topple governments or even incite any action, and it’s not on anybody’s radar as even remotely credible.

    So why do we have to put up with this kind of rhetoric every time it even looks like Israel might be offended?

    • Steve Novosel

      It didn’t happen to the collected works of Locke or Aquinas, though. It happened to a notable account of the horrors of the holocaust. You can’t make the equivalency to just some random book.

      I find it sad that you don’t see the significance in this sort of vandalism.

      • phu

        The point is not the work, it’s the author. I didn’t make any comparison to “some random book,” I made it with vastly more influential authors, and I do see the significance in any vandalism of literature.

        The point is that if this had been perpetrated against a book by an author from a different ethnic/religious background, there would have been little if any backlash, and certainly no discrimination-linked outrage.

      • Steve Novosel

        Well of course that’s the case! There wouldn’t have been any anti-Semitic or racist overtones to vandalizing a collection of Aristotle, but there sure as heck is of vandalizing hundreds of copies of Anne Frank.

        There’s nobody out there vandalizing every copy of Thomas Hardy they can find, they are vandalizing Anne Frank. Gee, I wonder why that is?

  • Steve Novosel

    Do you honestly think this is caused by “over publicizing the plight of Anne Frank” – and of course the Holocaust – so that today’s youth vandalize books?

    Seriously?

    Let me introduce you to “Occam’s Razor.”

    • zer0_0zor0

      Well, you have a good point, but your summary of my comment that misses the gist of what I was trying to say.

      Sure, the occurrences can be simply attributed to antisemitism.

      But there are very few Jewish people living in Japan, and why this book in particular was targeted.

      I suppose it was an easy target, which may have been more important than any symbolic meaning.