Many Japanese and long-time Japan observers have expressed dismay about the recrudescence of self-righteous nationalism under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has emboldened right-wing extremists now threatening democratic institutions and civil liberties.
“The revisionist right in Japan with the active encouragement, if not involvement, of the Abe government has succeeded in controlling NHK news, intimidating Asahi Shimbun and now academia,” says Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University.
Abe has presided over the mainstreaming of reactionary extremism in his quest to rewrite and rehabilitate Japan’s wartime past in Asia, and in doing so instigates widespread international criticism. Any other national leader who did the same for their nation’s egregious history would merit a similar reaction.
This past week, Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo moved to fire part-time lecturer Takashi Uemura, a former Asahi Shimbun journalist, because right-wing goons had threatened violence if he wasn’t removed. The university was reportedly inundated with threatening letters and phone calls demanding the teacher’s dismissal for his controversial articles in the 1990s about the comfort women system.
What started as a clash over history has morphed into a broader political battle over national identity and Japan’s democratic values. Nakano worries that “each time a university succumbs to right-wing intimidation, ‘success’ encourages more terrorist threats.”
Reactionaries maintain that the Asahi and its reporters tarnished Japan’s international reputation, but as Hokkaido University historian Philip Seaton explains, it is the “efforts by a small but powerful minority in Japan to deny atrocities that sullies Japan’s name in international eyes.”
These reactionaries are now inflicting infinitely more damage on Japan’s reputation than a handful of newspaper articles in the 1990s. It is scandalous that the so-called Net Right (netto uyoku) of extremists, lurking behind pseudonyms and spewing ill-informed vitriol on the Internet, are eroding democratic freedoms, censoring inconvenient truths and degrading Japan’s dignity.
As Martin Fackler of the New York Times recently wrote (Oct. 29), these cyberactivists “have gained an outsize influence with the rise of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative government, which shares the goal of ending negative portrayal of Japan’s history, and with the acquiescence of a society too uninterested or scared to speak out.”
Fackler goes on to note several examples around Japan where the Net Right has imposed its agenda through thuggery.
Japan’s cyber-terrorists sound like religious extremists, threatening “divine retribution” in the form of gas canisters packed with nails. By stopping towns from erecting repentant war memorials, caterwauling on the Internet and scaring employers into firing “undesirables,” these vigilantes represent Japan in jackboots. It is like the 1930s, when ultranationalists hounded respected academics such as Tatsukichi Minobe and Tadao Yanaihara from their posts.
The Net Right embodies Japan’s 21st-century McCarthyism, from an era when communist hysteria in the United States unleashed a witch hunt that trampled on democratic freedoms.
“Defending academic freedom must be sacrosanct,” Seaton says. “To terminate the ex-Asahi reporter’s contract simply sends the message that ‘intimidation works.’ This incident could initiate a dangerous slide toward the muzzling and dismissal of researchers working on sensitive issues.”
Andrew Horvat, former president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, points out that Uemura “has been caught in the crossfire of a proxy war on the comfort women issue. The aim of the rightists is to undermine the reputation of the Asahi, a liberal paper, and he has become a pawn in this game.”
Tomomi Yamaguchi, a professor of anthropology at Montana State University, says Uemura has been on the right’s hit list from the mid-2000s largely due to vilification by Tsutomu Nishioka, a professor at Tokyo Christian University.
Satoko Norimatsu, director of the Vancouver-based Peace Philosophy Centre, speculates that Hokusei itself is a target because of its 1995 Peace Declaration, which goes much further than the Murayama Statement in acknowledging Japan’s war responsibility and obligation to atone. Back then, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama condemned Japanese aggression in Asia and called for an end to “self-righteous nationalism.”
“The Abe regime has clearly abetted this mobilization of right-wing extremists against academic, media and other institutions,” asserts Andrew DeWit, a professor of public policy at Rikkyo University. “Allowing extremists to intimidate academe will not foster the learning environment that Japanese universities require in order to become the ‘super global universities’ envisioned in Abenomics. You cannot have it both ways, winking at ultra-nationalism that targets academe while at the same time actually building globally competitive institutions of critical inquiry.”
Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, argues that post-1945 Japan has advanced because of the ability to study, learn and teach in an open atmosphere.
“Since then, Japanese society and all who engage with it have benefited and thrived because of this fundamental freedom guaranteed in the 1947 Constitution,” says Dudden, who believes that “turning away now degrades Japan’s capacities to lead and defines a ‘safe’ society as one that cowers from bullies and sanitizes history to fit contingent political demands.”
Sven Saaler, a professor of history at Sophia University, notes that “right-wingers have been pushing their agenda constantly with violence. They have actually violently attacked journalists, newspaper offices and politicians.”
Mark Mullins, a professor of Japanese studies at the University of Auckland, warns that right-wing threats must be taken seriously.
“Recall that in 1990 Nagasaki Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima was shot by rightists for expressing his views about the Emperor and war responsibility; and in 2006, Koichi Kato, a moderate (Liberal Democratic Party) politician, had his house in Yamagata burned down for his criticism of Prime Minister (Junichiro) Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine.”
Saaler sees a broader pattern.
“In recent years, pressure by right-wing groups has led to cinemas canceling movies dealing with sensitive war-related issues; hotels canceling the reservations of conference rooms for symposia dealing with such issues; and museums canceling or revising exhibitions with sensitive contents,” he says.
The Peace Philosophy Centre’s Norimatsu thinks things are getting worse under the Abe regime.
“(There has been) widespread anti-China and anti-Korea sentiments (and) books of that kind becoming best-sellers, hate demonstrations, assaults on history by the nation’s leaders that trickle down to the general public, page-ripping of Anne Frank’s diaries, hiding of ‘Barefoot Gen’ in school libraries, assaults on protest tents in Okinawa and anti-nuclear tents in Tokyo, and public places refusing to rent space to groups that discuss issues like the Constitution and anti-nuclear power,” she says.
Amid this rightist chill, Mullins is worried that “academic freedom — and freedom of speech more broadly — is clearly threatened and is a legitimate concern for those who care about the future of democracy in Japan.”
Sophia’s Nakano laments that Abe exacerbates the situation.
“When an important principle of liberal democracy is under attack, the government should be playing an active role to condemn the attacks in strongest terms,” he says, but instead points out that it is actually fanning the fires.
Saaler’s suggests that, “The situation can be compared to Weimar Germany, where the authorities turned a blind eye to right-wing activities and let right-wing violence go largely unpunished.”
Here we remain far from descending into that Nazi abyss, but government tolerance for intolerance and hooliganism makes a mockery of the rule of law, democratic norms and the Olympic spirit.
[For readers interested in the Hokusei affair, here is a link to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan press conference by Koichi Nakano and Jiro Yamaguchi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.