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Perilous spirit of the times

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Female lawmakers given ministerial posts in the reshuffle of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet last month in the hope that more women on the team would shore up popular support for his Cabinet have turned out to be liabilities. Two of them have resigned after being accused of breaking basic rules in the Public Offices Election Law while two others are under the spotlight for their suspected ties to ultra-rightist groups.

It is inexcusable for Cabinet ministers to provide financial and material benefits to voters in their home constituencies. Neither former Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi nor former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima was qualified to assume Cabinet positions in the first place.

Even more serious are the reported ties of Sanae Takaichi, internal affairs minister, and Eriko Yamatani, head of the National Public Safety Commission, to ultra-rightist organizations that are accused of engaging in acts of racial discrimination. One of these groups has repeatedly threatened and harassed Korean residents in Japan, and some of its members have been accused of criminal offenses.

Yamatani has been photographed with one such offender. When she spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Yamatani avoided giving her opinion when asked by members of the foreign press what she thought of the Zaitokutai group’s activities.

Political leaders in a democracy bear an obligation to maintain the fight against terrorism, which threatens freedom and diverse values. If lawmakers like Takaichi and Yamatani are committed to protecting freedom and democracy, they need to condemn the activities of ultra-rightist groups like Zaitokukai or Neo-Nazis. If lawmakers exhibit stances that allow such groups freedom of speech and recognize their existence within the realm of value relativism, such lawmakers could, under the common sense of Western countries, be viewed as enemies of freedom.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with his intention to counter China, has reiterated that Japan shares such Western values as freedom, democracy, basic human rights and the rule of law. He has also reportedly proclaimed Japan’s intention to seek permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council as part of an attempt to expand his diplomacy on a global scale. Such remarks are an indication that his stupidity and egocentrism are beyond redemption.

The permanent members of the UNSC are an exclusive club comprising the victors of World War II. It is hardly possible that they would welcome a nation whose leader denies its wartime aggression and atrocities. The head of a Cabinet whose members sympathize with racial discrimination and historical revisionism can hardly win international trust by merely voicing his support for freedom and democracy.

The prime minister claims that the Asahi Shimbun’s erroneous reporting on the issue of sexual servitude involving the Imperial Japanese military damaged Japan’s national honor. But his remarks when viewed from overseas are off the mark. What makes Japan unfathomable to the eyes of the world is its politicians who spend so much energy denying the nation’s responsibility for its past sinful acts.

A large gap has emerged between Japanese and foreign media in their appraisal of Japan’s political scene. Some members of the Japanese media continue their onslaught against the Asahi Shimbun and try to spread their narcissistic view that Japan is “innocent” of charges leveled against it regarding its wartime behavior. Some members of the overseas media are growing skeptical as to whether Japan is indeed a champion of freedom and democracy.

It is quite strange that in this day and age of advanced information technology and globalization some Japanese media have retreated so far from coolheaded self-reflection. The danger lies in the fact that this phenomenon is taking place side by side with threats by those in power against members of the media that are critical of them.

In the final years of his life, the late political scientist Masao Maruyama witnessed the terror incidents committed by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. During one meeting with his disciples, Maruyama made an observation to the effect that he was not surprised when he saw the Aum followers, because when Japan was at the height of WWII, the whole nation resembled the Aum cult.

What he wanted to say, I presume, was that Japan’s freedom and democracy could be shoved aside when the nation’s deep-seated tendency of conformism spreads like wild fire.

It is pathetic that we have to quote the foreign media to criticize what is going on in this country. It is the job of members of the media and academics to tell people immersed in narcissism that they, in fact, have ugly aspects.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.

  • Steve Jackman

    This is a truly excellent article and hats off to Yamaguchi-san for his courage in writing it. I think many of Japan’s problems would disappear if had more courageous people like Yamaguchi-san.

    • phu

      Frankly, this is what happens when quotas trump quality. Granted, Abe would’ve just picked cronies anyway, but by deciding to arbitrarily cater to a particular demographic, he ignored even the appearance of selecting qualified ministers, and now we very predictably see them failing very hard.

  • mavky

    Professor Yamaguchi, Western values preserve freedom of speech for all groups, no matter how we may dislike their views. That doesn’t mean that we fall into “value relativism” or can’t firmly condemn these views. I find your call to cut off freedom of speech for some groups troubling and wonder how you would defend that stance.

    • ChuckRamone

      The group he mentioned, Zaitokukai, likes to express itself in the form of harassing particular ethnic groups. Do you think that should be covered under free speech?

  • Methaya Sirichit

    If media fails to dig up scandals or criticize the nation’s leaders, the citizens will continue to be exploited by those who have tie with the powerful. I don’t believe that “conformity” is the traditional Japanese value. Before the Meiji era, the country used to be divided into clans and the diversity of thought was there. I think the docile outlook of modern Japan was the result of fascism and nationalist’s regimes that follow the Meiji revolution until the WWII. When you are suppressed long enough, you end up being like robots. A society like this is not likely to produce good journalists who keep asking question and tackle difficult issues.

  • anoninjapan

    “..Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with his intention to counter China, has reiterated that Japan shares such Western values as freedom, democracy, basic human rights and the rule of law. He has also reportedly proclaimed Japan’s intention to seek permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council as part of an attempt to expand his diplomacy on a global scale. Such remarks are an indication that his stupidity and egocentrism are beyond redemption..”

    This paragraph sums it up very well. Good article. But as you sadly note:

    “..It is pathetic that we have to quote the foreign media to criticize what is going on in this country..”

    Thus i wonder how much mileage your insightful article shall get inside Japan? Sad day indeed.

  • Toolonggone

    Looks like the article title lends credence to Geoffrey R. Stone’s book “Perilous Times” (2004).