A major Japanese newspaper publishes an article denouncing the prime minister. Reporters hold a rally to criticize his Cabinet. The government responds by banning sales of the edition of the newspaper that carried the article, indicting its author for violation of the Newspaper Law. Rightwing agitators attack the newspaper’s publisher.

This blatant example of demagogic right-wing agitation instigated by a government in power took place in Japan in the summer of 1918.

The newspaper in question was the Osaka Asahi Shimbun; the prime minister, Masatake Terauchi. (Terauchi, who was the first Governor General of Korea, was a field marshal and a diehard Imperialist. Ironically, the rice riots of 1918, which had sparked the journalists’ criticism, led to his resignation that September.) These events have come to be called the “White Rainbow Incident,” a classical Chinese allusion to revolt.

Oppression of dissent is invariably the first step on the boot-march toward fascism. Liberals’ voices are initially stifled, and those who promote an unfettered discussion of a nation’s past are intimidated.

No recent issue illustrates this process more clearly than that related to the film by long-term Japan resident and film director, Li Ying. Though Li himself is Chinese, some of the key staff and crew for “Yasukuni,” a 2-hour documentary about the militaristic significance of the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo, are Japanese. Li also received a substantial ¥7.5-million grant from the Japan Arts Council, a branch of the Agency of Cultural Affairs.

As in the incident from 90 years ago cited above, again the government has incited the right wing to take a firm stance against openness. A group of legislators led by Tomomi Inada from the Liberal Democratic Party (which has ruled Japan for more than the last half-century) were behind this instigation.

Then, on April 19, it was reported in The Japan Times that 150 law-maker adherents to rightwing causes had viewed “Yasukuni.” Some of them labeled it “anti-Japanese,” calling for the withdrawal of the grant.

Let’s put this issue in perspective.

First of all, it is surprising that the controversy has been going on for so long, at least since Inada and her fellow LDP “film critics” saw the film in a special screening on March 12 and called for its boycott. A week is an age in Japanese journalism; two months an eternity.

The Japanese media lean enthusiastically toward ultrafadism. No sooner is enthusiasm for a story whipped up, turning an issue into a wadai (a topic on many lips), than is it dropped before anyone can delve too deeply into its true significance. This is because the true causes behind events can be embarrassing to special-interest groups or powerful individuals; and the working principle of most Japanese journalism is: “Don’t rock the boat, because you might go down with it.”

The very fact that a film that is a sober and exceedingly fair-minded historical and social documentary is still the stuff of controversy demonstrates the immaturity of Japanese public debate.

Second, the bandying about in this controversy of the loaded and absolutely meaningless term “anti-Japanese,” used in all seriousness, is disturbing. This disquiet is only deepened because the director of the film is not Japanese. Were he a native, I doubt that this film would have engendered such animosity among conservatives.

As such, there is an ugly racial element underpinning the controversy. Despite director Li’s affirmation of his genuine affection for Japan — after all, he lives and works here — the fact that he is “not one of us” marks him, in the eyes of some racialist Japanese, as “one of the usual suspects.”

In other words, create a false controversy, fan the flames of nationalism in and out of government — and what do you have? A social condition that is conducive to the suppression of dissent and the persecution, in one form or another, of those who do not share your “blood.”

A third aspect of the “Yasukuni” affair goes to the very heart of the democratic process.

It is a good thing that a society allows polemics. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with right-wing people peacefully airing their views and grievances. But what is distressing to a society’s health is the call for some sort of ideological purity in works of art that have benefited from government subsidy.

A grant from the government does not imply that everyone in officialdom concurs with the opinions expressed in the subsidized work of art. Were that the case, there would not be the wonderful probing and pricking, from the serious to the absurd, of British institutions and mores that you see daily on the BBC.

In Australia, the ABC — the public national broadcaster — also delivers a show called “The Chaser’s War on Everything.” It is hard to imagine a more outlandish, iconoclastic or radical program than this. Few people prominent in the news are left unscathed by the whip of its satire.

In contrast, NHK — Japan’s national broadcaster — is as bland as unsalted porridge. Both outside pressures and a deep-rooted and robust culture of self-censorship within the corporation ensure that powerful vested interests and “sensitive” historical issues are rarely probed or thoroughly examined for what such public exposure could entail.

You might point a finger at conservative lawmakers. You might bemoan the lack of democratic perspective on the part of rightwingers. But the real cause of a controversy such as the one now surrounding “Yasukuni” is timidity and overly guarded self-restraint on the part of an inhibited populace. This is not only reflecting a tradition of non-confrontation: It is the culture of look-away.

If the idea that a democracy thrives on the open-ended exposure of truth to public scrutiny through every medium of disclosure — whether newspapers, periodicals, films, theater, or whatever — were a part of the Japanese polity, then the lawmakers would never have fomented the controversy, and the wadai over the showing of “Yasukuni” would have just come and gone in a matter of days.

But the immaturity of Japanese democracy, particularly as it relates to freedom of speech, dictates that any individual, group or institution can be intimidated into silence by determined ideologues such as Inada, her followers and the nation’s tiny minority of stridently distasteful right-wingers.

Public subsidy, such as that given to Li Ying for his film, exists to encourage a wide range of viewpoints, to stimulate the nation into contemplation of its history and future. It is not about deciding what may be “acceptable” or “unacceptable” in a prospective work of art. No one is forced to go to see “Yasukuni” or, having seen it, to agree with it.

Take that away and you are once again on the boot-march toward that sinister bridge. Cross the bridge, as Japan once did with its people eventually in meek parade behind, and your democracy is sunk.

The “White Rainbow Incident” of 1918 heralded a culture of oppression over the ensuing two decades or more.

The only thing that can stop something similar occurring now is a widespread belief among Japanese people that suppression of ideas “in the name of the nation” will always be the nation’s worst enemy.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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