We live in an age of contention, when any comment can spark righteous indignation. Nominally conservative or progressive viewpoints become meaningless when every response is reactionary. This situation supposedly arose along with the Internet, which provides an unmediated outlet for every voice. Traditional media insisted on readers and viewers providing certifiable identification before printing or broadcasting their feedback, one of the ideas being that commenters will be more responsible for their opinions if forced to reveal their real names and addresses.

Recently, the Asahi Shimbun has slightly altered this policy. Though it still insists that letters to the editor be accompanied by real names, the paper no longer prints the city of residence, opting instead for the prefecture. In the past year, a number of letter writers’ home phone numbers were located by parties with opposing opinions who then systematically harassed the letter writers. Last spring, the paper published a letter from someone in central Japan who disagreed with the view that the “comfort women” were all professional prostitutes rather than sex slaves. The person was bombarded with anonymous phone calls at home, some of which contained threats. Later this person found out his phone number had been distributed on Internet bulletin boards.

The National Consumer Affairs Center says that complaints about harassment centered on media correspondence increased markedly this past spring, and Asahi itself acknowledges that at least 30 people whose letters it published have had their home phone numbers revealed on the Internet, with 14 becoming victims of harassment. Tokyo Shimbun reports that one recent letter writer to the Asahi who complained about nationalist sentiments at sporting events was systematically harassed even though the paper only printed his prefecture. There are many ways of finding out a person’s phone number. The paper said it discovered at least 800 examples of letter writers’ phone numbers and addresses being posted on Internet bulletin boards.

This sort of behavior is not new. Trolls — individuals who purposely send insulting and threatening messages to comments sections and social media sites — may be an Internet-specific phenomenon, but the impulses that drive them are general and eternal. Some say the difference is less ideological than psychological: serial harassers hide behind masks to express their grievances with the world, regardless of political leanings. But ideology, or at least the presumption of a “position,” is always the delivery device for the grievance.

Earlier this month there was an exhibition in Tokyo about the history of harassment against the anti-nuclear movement, with materials dating back to the 1980s. On display were dozens of letters and postcards to anti-nuclear activists calling them “lice” and sexual deviants, as well as envelopes containing nothing but cigarette butts or dead cockroaches. There was also written testimony from activists. One said she received a letter every day for three years with pictures taken secretly of her children. Another was sent the bill for an expensive tractor she never purchased, and still another explained how someone mailed out New Year’s cards in his name making him look like a mindless fanatic.

The exhibition’s organizers say they want people to understand the situation that the anti-nuclear movement has always faced, but the exhibition is directed more toward the media than to the public. If the press didn’t cover the anti-nuclear movement prior to the Fukushima crisis, it was partly out of fear that the groups who were carrying out the harassment might turn their ire on them.

This situation played out in a similar fashion with the controversy surrounding a new book by Takeshi Nakajima, an associate professor at Hokkaido University. “Liberal Hoshu Sengen” (“Declaration of Liberal Conservatism”) explains how traditional conservative values, which Nakajima respects, have been corrupted by reactionary tendencies. Most of the content originated in articles he wrote for the magazine Hyogensha, and last fall the publisher, NTT Shuppan, proposed he reconfigure the pieces into book form.

As Nakajima was finishing the final proofs in December he received a call from his editor saying that one chapter was “problematic” because it was critical of outspoken Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto. The editor said NTT Shuppan’s policy is to not publish material that “targets” a specific politician or political party. When Nakajima refused to remove the chapter, the book was canceled. It came out in June through a different publisher.

Asked by Tokyo Shimbun why it pulled the book, a representative of NTT Shuppan — a subsidiary of telecommunications giant NTT — said his company does not release anything that would “either benefit or denigrate” an individual, and denied that the cancelation had anything to do with Hashimoto’s public complaint against Shukan Asahi, which at the time of the cancelation had published an article about the mayor that greatly offended him. The reporter then asked about a book NTT published in January that was critical of specific members of the Democratic Party of Japan. The representative said it wasn’t a comparable matter because the ronten (point of discussion) was different, whatever that means.

NTT’s refusal to publish Nakajima’s book is ironic, since it’s about the deterioriation of discourse that has turned terms such as “conservative” and “liberal” into pejoratives. Some believe NTT Shuppan is afraid of Hashimoto, since its parent company does business with the city of Osaka, but just as likely it’s scared of the mayor’s right-wing supporters. In any event, the publisher’s claim that it doesn’t want to be seen as taking sides is itself a form of taking sides and helps those already in power dominate the conversation. Media outlets should prevent intimidation any way they can, but they’re failing their mission if they don’t stand up to it.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.