Exactly 30 years ago this month, I had an encounter with a man who became innocently involved in an international incident. That incident may be all but forgotten now, but it’s worth recalling here because it highlights the struggle of an individual of conscience to have the truth revealed.

Indeed, we in Japan are currently involved with the very same issues of personal responsibility and collective falsehood.

If we remain silent in the face of injustice or criminal negligence, if we allow unelected bureaucrats and business executives to ride roughshod over our personal welfare — as we are witnessing with regard to the ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukushima — the entire nation’s future could be put at risk by recklessness and prevarication.

In 1981, the distinguished Japanese sociologist and progressive thinker Prof. Rokuro Hidaka, author of many best-selling books on war, peace and human rights, was invited to two universities in Melbourne, Australia — La Trobe and Monash — to conduct research there and teach.

But then the Australian government refused to grant Hidaka a visa.

I heard about this and was incensed. I immediately contacted the editor-in-chief of Melbourne’s daily newspaper, The Age, and told him about it. A few days later, The Age broke the story on its front page, turning it into an international incident.

Despite letters of support from, among others, Kanagawa Prefecture Gov. Kazuji Nagasu, and the distinguished political scientist Masao Maruyama — and despite it being the Japan Foundation that was sponsoring the professor’s visit, along with his wife, Nobuko — the then Department of Immigration not only withheld a visa but refused to explain why it was doing so.

In the ensuing months, Hidaka corresponded with the immigration department in an attempt to discover the reason for their action. He was finally told that the visa refusal stemmed from a 1974 incident in France, where the Hidakas were living at the time. In September that year, after her husband had returned to Japan in May, Nobuko Hidaka was taken into custody by the French police. However, she wasn’t charged with any crime and was released. She then returned to Japan to rejoin her husband.

It appears that some months previously she had rented a room in their Paris home to a Japanese scholar of French, and this scholar had received visitors from time to time. Nobuko never met any of those visitors. However, it turned out that, according to a report in the French press, one visitor was a member of the Japanese Red Army, a terrorist group responsible for a string of deadly attacks.

Hence the immigration department was claiming that Rokuro and his wife were active supporters of the Japanese Red Army, even though there was no evidence to back this up and the French police had concluded that the Hidakas were not involved in any way with the terrorist group.

The bitter irony of this was that anyone in Japan or elsewhere who knew the Hidakas considered it absurd that they could possibly be accused of any such activity. In fact, denying them entry to Australia was nothing more than a rash and unjust decision by a kangaroo court of self-serving bureaucrats.

Nonetheless, the Australian government remained obdurate, wildly accusing some of Hidaka’s former students of association with the Japanese Red Army and refusing to reconsider the denial of visas. The media kept up pressure on the government, however; and, when the Labor Party took over power from the conservative Liberal Party in 1983, the new immigration minister reconsidered the application and granted the Hidakas a visa.

“The Japanese side wasn’t as persistent in support of my case as the Australians were,” Hidaka told me after the visa was granted in 1983. “The Japanese don’t have much of a consciousness of human rights or the rights of the individual. Even the word kenri is not really the equivalent of ‘rights.’ The Japanese think that insisting on your kenri is an activity associated with egoism.”

The Hidaka mondai (Hidaka affair), as it was known, ended well, and the professor visited Melbourne in 1983. But my involvement in it backfired on me in Japan after Hidaka and I recorded a talk we had for publication as an article in the Asahi Journal, a magazine published by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Shortly after we recorded the talk, another Japanese magazine that had commissioned me to write an unrelated article contacted me to say they weren’t going to run it.

“Why not?” I asked. “Wasn’t it good enough?”

The editor remained silent, and that was the last I ever heard from him. But a mutual friend later told me that they axed the article because “they didn’t want to publish an article written by someone who supports a terrorist.”

In other words, the Japanese editor had acted exactly like the minister in Australia, judging me guilty of something on the basis of hearsay, fabricated rumors and tenuous coincidence.

As I look back on all that, I have tremendous admiration for Hidaka, the now 94-year-old doyen of Japan’s progressive intellectuals who lives in Kyoto. But as I’d never met him before that affair in Australia 30 years ago, you may well be asking why I got involved.

The simple reason was my personal anger at the injustice being meted out to him and his wife.

I am not a particularly brave person, and generally do not get personally involved in other people’s problems. (Maybe that is one reason why I seem to have fitted well into Japanese society.) But I had no choice in that case, since my personal sense of what I knew to be right had been violated.

This is the kind of dilemma that faces people in all countries. But when you see an injustice being done and have a chance to bring it to the attention of others, do you do it?

Do you get involved by acting to expose the injustice, even as you have nothing to “gain” from it?

You may even be denounced and denigrated for doing so. Your actions may affect your job as, say, when you blow the whistle on someone who is doing something underhand, unethical or illegal.

If you are the spouse of a whistleblower, do you support your husband or wife, even though their actions may endanger the status of your household?

If you live in a country where dangerous choices have been made for you, such as the placement of nuclear plants in zones subject to earthquakes and tsunamis, do you just sigh and say, “Shikata ga nai (“It can’t be helped)”?

If you live in a country or city with a corrupt leader, do you protest — and if so, what means of protest do you adopt?

Each of us is presented with difficult personal decisions, and it is not always easy to “do the right thing.” Though you may be praised in the future for doing so, we all live first and foremost in the present. So, how can we bring together our present interests with those of ourselves and others in the future?

At least we now know this: With Japan at a crossroads in virtually all aspects of public life, shikata ga nai is no longer a viable option.

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