In a conversation that appeared in the August issue of the monthly magazine Hanada and was reported by the Mainichi Shimbun, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that parties “who have been criticized by some as anti-Japan” are now “strongly opposing staging the Olympics.”
Abe’s interlocutor, former news presenter Yoshiko Sakurai, is a well-known conservative pundit, and Abe cited two bete noire of the Japanese right, the Asahi Shimbun and the Japanese Communist Party, as leading the protest movement against the Olympics.
Given the context, Abe’s comment gave the impression that he was talking in a bubble for a select audience, making the protest movement out to be one centered on a desire to place Japan in an unfavorable light. Though Sakurai mentioned that opposition parties expressed fear about the Olympics exacerbating the spread of COVID-19, both she and Abe chalked it up to politics, ignoring the fact that a good portion of the public is against the games for the same reason.
In this regard, it’s notable that the Metropolitan Police Department has been holding anti-terrorism and anti-riot drills in order to be prepared in the event that anti-Olympics protests turn violent. Though there have been a number of anti-Olympics protests held so far and none were reported as having turned violent, the media conveys the police’s concern at face value without making a clear distinction between protests carried out by civic groups and possible terrorist actions. Such coverage could bolster Abe’s equation of “anti-Olympics” with “anti-Japan.”
Meanwhile, protests by groups that explicitly target what they perceive as anti-Japan sentiments are often addressed differently by both the authorities and the media. An art exhibition that was scheduled to be shown in Tokyo was postponed indefinitely due to threats by groups that feel some works, including a famous statue of a Korean wartime “comfort woman,” denigrate Japan. Protesters outside the Osaka venue, where the exhibition was supposed to be held later this month, blasted demands to cancel it at loud volumes, which will likely happen because the venue says it cannot guarantee safety for staff and visitors, meaning they think the protests could turn violent. In fact, matters did turn violent when a portion of the exhibition was shown in Nagoya. The issue was further muddied by Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, who said that while “illegal behavior is unacceptable … people are free to express their view that the exhibit is wrong.”
This is the strategy of some right-wing groups: Assume a posture of potential violence in order to intimidate those they disapprove of, secure in the knowledge that their right to free speech will be protected by the authorities, and the media will treat it all as a battle between partisan interests. This dynamic was illustrated more fully by another recent confrontation over creative content.
In April, a documentary titled “East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front” opened in a number of Japanese cities. The title refers to a radical left-wing group active in the 1970s that saw Japan as the perpetrator of oppression in East Asia before, during and since World War II. The group identified Japanese big business as a major culprit and bombed the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries headquarters in 1974, killing eight people. At least one former member is still in prison, a few have been released after serving time, several have died and still others remain at large.
The movie is an attempt to explain why the group came into being and what its goals were, relying mainly on interviews with two surviving members who completed their prison sentences, as well as with relatives of other members and people who supported the group at one time. The film’s South Korean director, Kim Mi-re, specializes in topics associated with labor movements, and she learned about the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front while researching day laborers in Japan. In an interview with Money Gendai in April, Kim said she “empathized” with the stated goals of the group, and not just due to South Korea’s subject status under Japanese colonial rule. Like Japan, she said, South Korea exploited its own people as well as workers in other Southeast Asian countries in order to become more economically powerful. Her aim was to find out what went on in the group.
Nationalists have tried to prevent public screenings of the movie. One theater in Atsugi canceled its scheduled run of the film as a result of right-wing pressure. At a press conference in May, the distributor’s president, Sanshiro Kobayashi, explained that police had called the theater ahead of the film’s opening to say that groups had applied to use public roads near the building where the theater was located for protest purposes, and the manager caved, saying he did so to ensure the safety of staff and customers.
Conversely, a theater in Yokohama decided to go ahead with screenings even after sound trucks showed up demanding they be canceled and claiming that box-office receipts would be used to fund the front. In addition, two protesters confronted the theater manager in person, saying the film tolerates the activities of the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front, which, according to the theater’s lawyer, is not true. For one thing, the front no longer exists, and, in any case, the movie does not advocate for the front, but rather tries to explain its social and political aims.
Kobayashi said these right-wing groups were effectively violating the theaters’ right to free speech using methods that interfered with the theaters’ business, which is against the law. Though there have been instances in the past of the police stopping such protests, the strategy’s continued success as illustrated by the controversial art exhibition points to a lack of consistency on the part of the authorities to protect speech regardless of who is protesting.
By extension, the mass media’s neglect to distinguish between opposition to those in power and intimidation of those without power points to something even more troubling.
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