Culture

Culture clash: Entertainers add weight to government protests

An increasing number of people involved in the entertainment industry are voicing their opposition to moves by the government to change the country’s pacifist Constitution

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

Judging from recent comments posted on Twitter and websites such as abe-no.net, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe doesn’t appear to have endeared himself to a number of celebrities who hold plenty of sway over public opinion with regards to his moves to change the nation’s Constitution.

Whether the criticism is deserved or not, there’s definitely a degree of consistency apparent in its hostility. Take, for example:

“You are very frightening. You can’t communicate, and you don’t understand democracy, human rights nor the Constitution.” — Minori Kitahara, writer

“It will be the end of this country if Abe’s administration continues.” — Peter Barakan, broadcaster

“You can hear the people’s voices coming together on the streets, can’t you? Everyone is angry because your way of thinking is going to destroy our future.” — Katsu Takagi, guitarist, Soul Flower Union

“I don’t know if you are pretending not to understand or if you really don’t understand but it seems like we just can’t communicate, so why don’t you let someone else take your place?” — Kazumi Nikaido, singer

“I am proud that the younger generation is taking a stand. What is going to happen to Japan?” — Shelly, TV personality

“A war of aggression is wrong and we should say with confidence that it is foolish to support it.” — Shigeru Kishida, musician, Quruli

The above celebrities are up in arms at the Abe administration’s attempt to reinterpret the country’s war-renouncing Constitution, a charter that has remained untouched since it came into effect in 1947.

Until now, Article 9 of the Constitution has limited the country’s use of force to self-defense. However, the security bills that were steamrolled through the Lower House in July and are currently being deliberated in the Upper House will enable the government to execute collective self-defense.

Abe insists the legislation won’t entangle Japan in hostilities involving other countries but few appear to believe him. The elderly, salarymen, mothers and nation’s youth have all expressed fervent opposition to the bills.

Moreover, opposition to the legislation hasn’t stopped there, and musicians, artists, TV personalities, writers, film directors, actors and actresses have also begun to voice their criticism through their words, their music, their art and social media.

Celebrities used to avoid making political statements, says Ikuo Gonoi, an associate professor of international political science at Takachiho University in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward. These days, however, they’re much more likely to speak out on issues they feel passionately about.

“It is clear a cultural protest movement is taking place right now,” Gonoi says. “With a general election not scheduled in the immediate future, people are trying to change the world of politics from the outside by organizing social and cultural demonstrations.”

In Hollywood, celebrities generally don’t shy away from making political statements, and will usually state publicly who they endorse in presidential elections.

Entertainers in Japan, however, have historically kept quiet on contentious issues.

Gonoi, an expert in domestic and international demonstrations, says the threat of losing their jobs ensured most commentators kept their opinion to themselves.

However, the March 2011 earthquake and subsequent nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has — at least, to some extent — changed this.

An increasing number of people are taking a stand against the government’s policies, especially artists and musicians, Gonoi says.

“Many people in Japan fear making political statements because they viewed speaking out against authorities or having political discussions as being taboo,” Gonoi says. “Now, however, people are seeing their favorite artists or musicians speaking out and are beginning to realize that it’s OK to talk about politics and criticize the government.”

Repeated mistakes

Film director Isao Takahata, co-founder of Studio Ghibli, is certainly not shy about expressing his concern over the proposed security legislation.

“What Abe is trying to do is change direction 180 degrees,” Takahata, 79, tells The Japan Times. “He is saying all sorts of gibberish but, in the end, I think it all comes down to the fact that he is trying to change Japan from a country that cannot engage in war to one that can — without revising the Constitution.”

Takahata, an animator who as a child survived a U.S. air raid in Okayama Prefecture, is the creator of “Hotaru no Haka” (“Grave of the Fireflies”), which tells the story of a brother and his younger sister struggling to survive World War II. The director, however, says that simply reminding people about the atrocities of war is not going to prevent another from taking place.

“No one believes World War II was a good thing but opinions become divided from there,” Takahata says. “People such as Abe argue that Japan needs to be able to go to war so that we never experience anything like that again. I, on the other hand, am completely against it.”

The award-winning director says the security bills aren’t necessary and emphasizes the importance of Article 9 in preventing Japan from getting involved in another war. Together with fellow directors and actors such as Yoji Yamada, Takahata is warning the public about the direction Abe is taking Japan down. The collective, which calls itself Eigajin Kyujo no Kai (Cineasts for Article 9), has issued a public statement and has gathered more than 700 supporters, including actress Sayuri Yoshinaga, who agree that the security bills would “naturally restrict our fundamental human rights, freedom of speech and press.”

“The important thing is to avoid the dangers associated (with war and terrorism) at all cost, and the best way to ensure that is by upholding Article 9 and using diplomacy,” Takahata says.

‘Making a difference’

Seifuku Kojo Iinkai (Uniform Improvement Committee), an idol group consisting of 10 young women dressed in school uniforms, has also been critical of the government in recent months. Tackling such contentious topics as nuclear power, defense and capitalism, the group certainly isn’t afraid to speak its mind.

In June, the group fell out with the Yamato municipal government in Kanagawa Prefecture after singing songs that criticized Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party at an event endorsed by the city. “The Upper House election lacks excitement,” the girls sang in their parody of U.S. minstrel Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susanna.” “TV broadcasters don’t make it exciting/ There are too many lying politicians/ The Liberal Democratic Party, the root of all evil.”

The local government retroactively withdrew its support.

Eighteen-year-old Yuria Saito and 17-year-old Kana Kinashi are still shocked over the ruling party’s reaction.

“I couldn’t believe how small-minded the LDP members were,” Saito says. “All we did was criticize the LDP, not support a specific political organization or anything. We use our songs to point out what we think is wrong with the government. We sang about the Democratic Party of Japan, too.”

After the event, the group’s office was inundated with hateful messages and even some death threats. Seifuku Kojo Iinkai’s management company beefed up security and consulted with the police, who agreed to add its office to daily patrols. The young women, however, refuse to be intimidated.

“It’s true that we get messages from right-wing groups, telling us that we are ugly or making other derogatory remarks. Of course, this hurts and we are a little worried about our safety,” Kinashi says. “But we also receive plenty of support from others, and so we want to continue to sing for them as well as for those who haven’t been born yet in order to preserve this wonderful and peaceful country.”

Both Kinashi and Saito joined Seifuku Kojo Iinkai after the March 2011 disasters but the pop group has been active for more than 20 years. Although Seifuku Kojo Iinkai was originally founded in 1992 to improve the design of schoolgirls’ uniforms, it has also focused on other social activities, from animal protection and anti-smoking to anti-bullying.

Hiroyuki Takahashi, the group’s producer, says the group became much more politically active in 1997 after an incident involving a stalker.

The woman at the center of the incident asked the police to intervene but they brushed aside her concerns and made disparaging remarks about her looks. In response, the group participated in a petition to enact anti-stalking legislation. The country’s first anti-stalking law was enacted in 2000. Since then, the group has recorded an estimated 1,300 songs, many of which involve protest.

“We want people to become aware of the issues that are out there and I think music is a good way to do that,” Takahashi says. “As a result, I think we can make a difference — little by little.”

Making waves

Seifuku Kojo Iinkai is far from the only music group that is politically active. Southern All Stars’ released a chart-topping anti-war song titled “Peace and Hi-Lite” in 2013, while pop idol group AKB48 released a song titled “Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai” (“We Will Not Fight”) in May.

Keisuke Kuwata, lead vocalist for Southern All Stars, was even forced to issue an apology earlier this year after participating in a series of stunts that were believed to make fun of Abe, including wearing a fake Adolf Hitler mustache while singing “Peace and Hi-Lite” on NHK’s year-end “Kohaku Uta Gassen” song contest.

On television, outspoken singer-songwriter Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi has said he feels as if Japan is heading toward war. “It is always our children, the teenagers who are supposed to be our future, that will have to pick up guns and go to war,” Nagabuchi told a Fuji TV program in July. “It is their lives that will be sacrificed. I want to turn guns into guitars.”

Controversial artist Makoto Aida has also made waves in the cultural community with a 2014 installation titled “A video recording of a man calling himself Japan’s prime minister, making a speech at an international assembly.”

Although Aida denies making any mockery of Abe, Aida himself appears in the video dressed looking like the prime minister, delivering the following speech in English: “We began imitating other powerful countries, we colonized those weaker nations surrounding us and we began wars of aggression. There were a great many people whom we insulted, and we wounded — and we killed. … I am sorry!!!!”

The installation is one of several pieces Aida included in an exhibition titled “An Art Exhibition for Children — Whose Place is this?” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in Koto Ward, which is on display through Oct. 12. Last month, however, he revealed on Tumblr that the museum asked him to take down two displays, including the video installation. The artist stood his ground and the museum ended up backing down in early August.

The installation is full of satire as Aida speaks falteringly in English about anti-globalism and the need to cut all ties with other countries by destroying all international airports, major aircrafts as well as disconnecting the Internet.

“The man depicted in the video is clearly wrong, and yet, it is hard to say he is completely wrong,” Aida says. “The installation focuses on precisely that dilemma.”

While Aida says it is not a direct jab at Abe or his government, he notes that there are some similarities.

“Abe and this person (in the video) have fundamentally different views but I think some beliefs intersect in a twisted way,” Aida says. “I am hoping these aspects of the work will get viewers thinking and generate thoughts inside the audience’s minds.”

The artworks are all displayed at the museum in their original state. Aida says he explained the meaning behind the exhibits to museum executives and was informed that his pieces would be exhibited as intended. “I don’t know the details behind their decision,” he says, “I am just relieved.”

Takachiho University’s Gonoi says that while the LDP is not directly involved in these complaints against the artists, organizations are adopting a conservative approach after seeing the manner in which the party attacked the Asahi Shimbun last year after it retracted articles it published in the 1980s and ’90s regarding the issue of women who were forced to work at military brothels before and during World War II.

“I think freedom of expression and press freedom are both disappearing,” Gonoi says. “Anything that criticizes the government or is painful to the ears of the LDP becomes framed as being anti-government. This, however, is not democracy.”

However, it will be difficult for the LDP to ignore the various protests being organized nationwide against the security bills. Websites such as abe-no.net are also jumping on the bandwagon, helping celebrities, academics, musicians, journalists, lawmakers and lawyers to send out messages to put a stop to the prime minister once and for all.

What’s more, a major demonstration is set to take place in Tokyo on Sunday. Organizers are calling for 100,000 people to surround the prime minister’s office, while related events are expected to be held in 200 places nationwide.

“People fear that 70 years could be the end of peace and prosperity in the postwar era and we may not witness a 100th anniversary,” Gonoi says. “Citizens of Japan have awoken to participate in a democratic movement to make themselves heard from outside the walls of the Diet.”

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