Commentary / Japan

Does right-wing extremism threaten Japan's democracy?

by Hugh Cortazzi

Extreme nationalism is a threat to democratic institutions and values everywhere. Recent reports in the British media about the growing influence of right-wing extremists in Japan have caused deep concern among friends of Japan here.

On Oct. 22 it was reported that Sanae Takaichi, the minister for internal affairs, had given an enthusiastic endorsement of a book praising Adolf Hitler. The explanations and denials issued have been contradictory and unconvincing.

If any British minister were to say anything that even by implication supported a criminal who had been instrumental in instituting the Holocaust, there would be a public outcry and the minister concerned would be forced to resign.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s alleged statement in April that convicted war criminals were “martyrs” was regarded here as unacceptable. I wrote to the Japanese Embassy in London asking whether Abe had in fact made such a statement. I said that any such statement was highly offensive to British people whose relatives had suffered so much at the hands of some members of Imperial Japanese forces during World War II. As no reply to my letter was received, I have to assume that Abe had indeed made this remark.

On Oct. 18 it was reported that NHK, in a notice to journalists on its English-language services, had banned any references to the Nanking massacre and to the Japanese use of “comfort women,” the euphemism used for sex slaves.

NHK is supposed to be like the BBC and to be both politically neutral and objective. Under the direction of Katsuto Momii it seems to have been turned into a tool of the Japanese government. As professor Koichi Nakano has apparently said, it looks “increasingly like a mirror of CCTV,” China’s state broadcaster.

There have been many reports here suggesting that Abe’s right-wing ministers want to rewrite history to provide academic support for their attempts to exculpate Japan’s wartime leaders.

Western historians, basing themselves on unimpeachable evidence, have no doubt about the atrocities committed by Japanese forces not only in Nanjing but elsewhere in China. That Chinese forces, nationalist and communist alike, also committed crimes against civilians is also true, but Japan was the aggressor and Chinese behavior was no excuse for the deliberate policies of oppression adopted by the Japanese high command.

There can be no doubt that members of the Japanese Army not only were responsible for many rapes but also forced women, not only Koreans, in occupied territories to become sex slaves.

The facts about the activities of the Japanese biological warfare unit 731 in Manchukuo are so horrific that its existence and experiments tend to be buried and, if possible, forgotten. This “amnesia” is at least in part due to American connivance; American investigators were told the results of the “experiments” in return for not pursuing the Japanese perpetrators.

The maltreatment, to use an understatement, of the civilian populations in occupied territories including Singapore cannot be denied except by the willfully blind. Nor can historical revisionists justify the way in which allied prisoners of war were mistreated.

I do not mention these facts to stir up trouble or ill feeling. Like other friends of Japan here I believe strongly in reconciliation and support the efforts made by both Japanese and British individuals and groups working for mutual understanding and seeking to ensure that there is no repetition of the atrocities committed in war. Revisionists make these tasks harder.

In the eyes of Japanese right-wing nationalists, the only crime committed by Japan’s military leaders was that they failed. The rightists lack ethical principles and are opposed to democratic institutions.

I hope and believe that the extreme right will not be allowed to take over the Japanese government, but the opposition in the Diet is weak and divided.

It seems that Japan has reverted to one-party government. This could lead to autocracy and the infringement of human rights.

The Japanese media should be one of the main pillars supporting Japanese democratic institutions, but they have been under pressure from the extremists. The official secrets legislation rammed through the Diet in December 2013 is a potential threat to press freedom. Commercial television stations see little or no profit in exposing and combatting the right wing, whose members may be able to call out support from Japanese gangsters.

It is unfortunate that one of the leading papers opposed to the rightists has been exposed as relying on tainted evidence over the “comfort women.” Even if one piece of evidence was flawed, there is ample other evidence of the sexual exploitation practiced by the Japanese Army in occupied territories.

The Japanese media have the reputation abroad of being too close to the Japanese establishment as a result of the “kisha club” system. The beneficiaries of the system deny this, but even if the Japanese media are not “pussy cats,” a study of prewar history suggests that extremist threats can inhibit the free and frank criticism that is necessary to preserve a healthy democracy in Japan.

Japan’s image and prestige abroad is suffering as a result of the apparently growing influence of extremists in the Japanese government. It is very much in Japan’s national interest that the revisionists are discouraged from propagating their historical lies and that Japanese democratic processes are not threatened by extremist anti-democratic individuals or groups.

I am aware that by writing this article Japanese right-wing nationalists will regard me as anti-Japanese. This is not the case. I admire and like Japanese culture and am happy to have many good Japanese friends. One book on which I worked long and hard for a series on “Great Civilizations of the World” is titled “The Japanese Achievement.” In this I attempted to outline Japanese history and its culture. Better a candid friend than an insincere sycophant.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.