Certainly it’s worse in China, South Korean security recently beat demonstrators and Spain faces a blanket gag rule, but are concerns about the anti-democratic forces of darkness in Japan unduly alarmist? How bad can it be if protestors in Hibiya Park can carry placards depicting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as Adolf Hitler?
Bad enough, alas. New York Times Tokyo bureau chief Martin Fackler, among others, recently implicated Team Abe in getting Shigeaki Koga, a prominent Abe critic, axed from Asahi TV’s “Hodo Station” program.
“I am afraid that media organizations’ self-restraint is spreading and, as a result, accurate information is not reaching the public,” Koga said at a press conference, claiming he was the victim of a political vendetta and corporate media timidity.
Mindful of the orchestrated attacks on the Asahi’s news organs and fearful of right-wing reprisals, self-censorship is a growing problem. Columbia University’s Gerald Curtis told me about the recent cancellation of a planned television interview that was to take place in New York. The local correspondent informed him that the Japanese network’s management in Tokyo nixed the interview because it was going to assess how Abe has handled the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and this topic was deemed too sensitive.
Curtis says the worrying lesson here is that “the government doesn’t have to muzzle the press if the press takes it upon itself to do the muzzling.”
But the government is taking no chances.
Conservative Abe cronies were appointed to NHK’s top management last year, and Katsuto Momii, a man without any media experience, was named chairman. He later declared to the press, “When the government is saying ‘Right’ we can’t say ‘Left.'”
Since Momii began promoting this curious vision at NHK, staff have complained that managers are strictly insisting on wording that hues to government views on controversial topics such as Yasukuni Shrine, disputed territories and the “comfort women.” To ensure conformity, NHK now publishes an internal censorship manual, called the “Orange Book,” banning the use of the term “sex slaves” and other phrases identified as problematic. NHK insiders told me that some recalcitrant staff suffered career derailments because they didn’t toe the line, including a group that openly called on Momii to step down.
There is no smoking gun, and it could be a routine staff rotation, but an apparent casualty of the purge is NHK’s “News Watch 9” anchor Kensuke Okoshi, who has spoken out against nuclear power and committed other “transgressions.”
Controversy erupted last summer when Naoki Hyakuta, a best-selling writer and conservative on history issues, was handpicked by Abe to serve on NHK’s board of governors. Hyakuta criticized Okoshi’s on-air comments about ethnic Korean residents in Japan that were aired July 17, 2014. Okoshi said: “The first-generation Korean residents were those who were forcibly brought to Japan or moved to the country to seek jobs after the annexation of Korea in 1910. They had a lot of difficulties establishing their foundations for living.”
At the subsequent NHK board of governors meeting, Hyakuta reportedly asked: “Is it acceptable to say ethnic Korean residents are those who were forcibly taken by Japan? That is wrong.”
The acting chair informed Hyakuta that as a governor, comments about the content of an individual program violated the broadcasting law. Hyakuta has since resigned his position, complaining he wasn’t able to have any impact, but one can imagine that NHK staff felt his presence, and indeed Okoshi is no longer a newscaster despite being one of the most respected in the business.
“The systematic suppression of the press and freedom of speech by the Abe government and its functionaries is very, very disturbing in terms of its effects on the future course of Japan and its democracy,” says Ayako Doi, a journalist based in the United States who is currently an associate fellow of the Asia Society. In her view, things have gotten significantly worse under Abe. She cites the Liberal Democratic Party’s summons of Japanese media executives, the Japanese consul general in Frankfurt’s visit to the editors of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and a Foreign Ministry official’s visit to publisher McGraw-Hill in New York to ask for changes in the descriptions of Japan’s comfort women system of sexual slavery written in a U.S. history textbook.
“They have become more numerous, blatant and unapologetic,” she says, adding that the government is targeting both Japanese and non-Japanese critics alike.
Japan Times columnist Gregory Clark says the atmosphere of intimidation has become exceptionally “ugly,” attributing it to a “right-wing rebound and revenge.”
“Something strange is going on,” he says, citing recent attacks on progressive media. “Particularly given that Tokyo keeps talking about its value identification with the West.”
Well-placed sources in Washington previously told me that even overseas the Japanese government actively disparages Abe’s critics, something that Doi isn’t surprised by.
“It seems that under the Abe government, efforts to silence critics of his policies and interpretation of history have become systematic,” she says. “It now appears to be a concerted effort orchestrated by Kantei (the prime minister’s office).”
Japan’s right-wing media also engages in trans-Pacific intimidation. For example, a rightwing pundit slammed the National Bureau of Asian Research’s Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum, making groundless accusations about an anti-Japan bias. He also attacked the Japan Foundation’s Center for Global Partnership for sponsoring a research project regarding Sino-Japanese relations and history issues. This research project was deemed a waste of Japanese taxpayers’ money and some of the researchers were subject to defamatory attacks on their professional integrity. But it would be a sad day for Japanese democracy if the right wing gets to set the research agenda, pick the scholars and decide what they should conclude.
Clark himself was publicly defamed for his alleged anti-Japanese views because he raised some questions about government and media representations concerning the North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals. Following that, he says his university employer received a cascade of threatening letters demanding he be sacked.
“Requests to write articles for the magazines and newspapers I had long known dried up,” Clark says. “Invitations to give talks on Japan’s lively lecture circuit died overnight. One of Japan’s largest trading companies abruptly canceled my already-announced appointment as outside board director with the vague excuse of wanting to avoid controversy.”
Lamentably, he added, “You cannot expect anyone to come to your aid once the nationalistic right-wing mood creators, now on the rise, decide to attack you. Freedom of speech and opinion is being whittled away relentlessly.”
Exposing such orchestrated attacks and highlighting the dangers of self-censorship are all the more important in contemporary Japan because, as Doi puts it, media freedom is “sliding down a slippery slope” and it’s important to “speak out before the momentum becomes unstoppable.”
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.