Commentary / Japan

Japanese society deteriorating

by Jiro Yamaguchi

We are witnessing shocking incidents these days that point to a deterioration of Japan’s society.

A former worker at a care home for people with disabilities in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, allegedly attacked the facility in late July, killing 19 residents and injuring 26 others. The suspect is undergoing psychiatric evaluation of his mental competency, and it’s not clear at this point whether he can be held criminally liable. But months before the alleged crime, he had sent a letter addressed to the speaker of the Lower House to the effect that people with heavy disabilities are a burden on society and that they had better be put to mercy killing. The suspect appears to have been driven by beliefs in eugenics just like the Nazis.

Recently a blog post by a TV news anchorman — in which he insisted that the public health insurance system should be dismantled, that kidney disease patients undergoing dialysis should pay for the full expense of the treatment because they became ill due to their own actions and that patients who cannot cover the expense themselves should be left to die — stirred up major repercussions. But despite the widespread criticism, he has yet to retract his remarks and the TV broadcaster employing him does not plan to remove him from his program.

In the Democratic Party’s leadership race this month, some right-wingers on the internet attacked the winning candidate Renho for her dual Japanese-Taiwanese citizenship, and the Sankei Shimbun concurred, writing that she was not qualified to lead a political party. When she was born, the Nationality Law dictated that Renho, who has a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother, take on her father’s nationality. It was only after reform of the law in 1985 that she was able to obtain Japanese nationality. The problem would not have emerged in the first place if the Nationality Law from the beginning had allowed people to choose the nationality of either parent. The sole lesson from the issue is for us to reflect on the fact that the nation used to have a male chauvinistic Nationality Law. I was disappointed to see DP lawmakers agitated by the criticism of the right-wingers.

In Europe, right-wing populism is fueling racial discrimination in response to an influx of migrants. In Japan, racial and religious minorities are quite limited in numbers. Instead, people with disabilities and illnesses become the target of social bullying. The mass murder in Sagamihara may be an extreme case. People who discriminate against those with disabilities and illnesses because they consider them to be nuisances may not be new to Japanese society. Until recently, however, such outrageous views were expelled from the sphere of public speech, as were arguments that discriminate against people based on their birth. The principle that people’s dignity and life must be respected unconditionally was upheld.

Today, even when there are outrageous attempts to deny the principle, people in leading positions in Japanese society, especially politicians and executives of mass media organizations, do not resolutely stand up to protect life and equality. That’s the essence of the crisis threatening Japanese society.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may not be a racist himself, but there are large numbers of politicians in the government and the ruling party who fuel racial discrimination and have close ties to an organization that disseminates hate speech. A company that distributes internet programs, in which TV Asahi has a stake, publicly spreads the worst kinds of racist hate speech. This behavior comes in stark contrast to that of U.S. President Barack Obama, who resolutely seeks to fight racism whenever incidents involving racial discrimination take place.

The equality and dignity of people proclaimed in the Constitution are ideals that are hard to achieve. But if the ideals are denied, modern civilization would collapse and society would degrade, returning to a barbaric state dominated by ugly human passions.

The Abe administration and the Liberal Democratic Party are seeking to launch discussions in the Diet this fall for amending the Constitution. But what kind of discussions on the Constitution will be held in this country that leaves malicious discrimination unchecked? Politicians who take part in the constitutional discussions should first and foremost make clear what position they take on the recent spate of hate crimes and hate speech. In a democracy, we need to constantly reconfirm the importance of principles — no matter how cumbersome the process may be.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo.