Press Freedom in Japan – Just a Mirage?
Japan seems determined to live up to its “see no evil” reputation. Or as they say in Japanese, kusai mono ni futa o suru – ignore (put a lid on) the unseemly.
The evil and unseemly this time is the ugly attempt to silence well-known commentator Soichiro Tahara for reporting on television exactly what he said he was told by a Foreign Ministry contact, which was that none of the formerly remaining abductees in North Korea was still alive. Tahara was trying to counter the domestic calls for hard-line policies to force Pyongyang to free more abductees. But Japan’s conservative and rightwing establishment believes it is imperative to keep both
the abductee issue and those hard-line policies alive.
No one has come to Tahara’s aid. The parents of one of the alleged abductees have even sued him for causing mental distress. He has had to remain silent ever since.
Tahara is not the only victim of efforts here to prevent free expressions of opinion on the abductee issue. This writer is another.
My own story begins with the media freedom issue this journal reported in 2006 when an avowedly rightwing Sankei Shimbun correspondent, Yoshihisa Komori, attacked and effectively ruined an effort by the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) to create an online service offering independent Japanese views of the world in English.
The JIIA is not a leftwing outfit. On the contrary, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long sponsored and funded the organization. But when the Commentary section on the JIIA website ran a piece by section manager Masaru Tamamoto that seemed mildly critical of Japan’s hang-up over Yasukuni Shrine, Koizumi and Sankei went ballistic.
Why was a government-funded organization being allowed to propagate this kind of anti-Japan libel, they roared. Tamamoto was promptly fired, and the JIIA was forced to apologize. David McNeill wrote criticizing Komori for this blatant denial of press freedom, and warned against rising nationalistic power in Japan in Number 1 Shimbun, as did others both in Japan and the U.S. But both Komori and Sankei were unrepentant. Sankei also refused to publish any rebuttals. Komori then set about counterattacking the critics, demanding from them the rebuttal freedom that he and his newspaper had denied them.
SACKING THE FORUM
Part of Komori’s counterattack was an equally vicious and lengthy assault on the NBR Japan Forum. The impetus seems to be that the Forum had given space to one of Komori’s most effective critics, Steven Clemons, the vice president of the New America Foundation, who warned of “1930s-style censorship” in an article headlined “Japan’s Right-Wingers Are Out of Control.”
The Forum was accused of being a nest of Japan-hating liberals. Since it carries contributions by a range of FCCJ members – including Sam Jameson, Bob Neff, Joel Legendre-Koizumi and myself – maybe the time has come to respond with a few details. Let me start with the obvious fact that the NBR Japan Forum is utterly unlikely to be a haven for Japan-hating liberals.
The NBR, or National Bureau of Asian Research, began life as a staunchly anti-communist U.S. organization for research on the Soviet Union and China. At the end of the Cold War the bureau diversified to include Japan as a research area. And while its Japan Forum is open to all – and I recommend it highly to Club members keen to be read outside Japan and to glean outside opinions – it still bears a “U.S. as No. 1” orientation. Many of its contributors have conservative backgrounds, including some from the U.S. military. In 2006, the NBR endowed a chair in national security studies in the name of Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for his role as senior advisor to NBR’s Strategic Asia Program. The inaugural chair, Dennis C. Blair, was President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence. None of this suggests an organization keen to harbor lily-livered, pussyfooting, Japan-hating leftwing liberals.
But to Komori’s mind, a few distortions apparently matter little, provided they help immobilize critics. In a repeat of the JIIA affair, the worthy Japan Foundation was blasted for helping to fund the NBR. I was part of the collateral damage in this scattershot attack, accused of using the Forum to condemn the entire North Korean abductee affair as dechiage – meaning contrived or bogus – a word guaranteed to set off alarm bells throughout this abductee-obsessed society.
What I had written on the Forum was in fact quite different. In response to another Forum contributor, I had pointed out how articles in the UK edition of Nature and one other scientific magazine had said Tokyo’s claims about its DNA tests on some charred bones were bogus. Pyongyang had produced the bones to prove that one abductee, Yokota Megumi, had died. Tokyo said its tests had proved the bones did not belong to Yokota, and this confirmed Pyongyang was probably lying when it denied not just Megumi’s death but also the existence of other abductees still alive in North Korea.
Tokyo was trying hard to create the false image of a beautiful and tragic Megumi languishing in a North Korean hell and needing immediate rescue. It had launched its campaign of sanctions against Pyongyang based in part on this flimsy evidence. Flimsy, because the scientific experts at Nature had pointed out that DNA testing of charred bones was impossible. I checked the details with Japan’s top specialist based in the Kazusa DNA Research Institute. He confirmed what Nature had written.
Other details were also relevant. For example, the official DNA bone tester had no proper qualifications. He also disappeared from sight after confessing that proper bone testing had been impossible. Then there was the official reluctance about allowing Yokota’s parents – or anyone else for that matter – to visit Megumi’s daughter in Pyongyang to find out directly what had happened to her mother, and the refusal to allow others to test the charred bones. (For students of how Tokyo sets out to create foreign-policy myths, read the excellent Wikipedia summary of the bone-testing saga.)
Even so, Tokyo was not just insisting that North Korea was evil and had to be sanctioned, but was also using resolution of the abductee issue as a condition for cooperating in the Six-Party Talks aimed at halting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Meanwhile, they had to ignore the real evil in the abductee issue: the way so many seemed to have suffered ugly deaths, including Megumi, abducted at age 13, married off to a Party hack, and an eventual suicide. How do you say this if you insist the abductees are alive and waiting to be freed?
WHEN IT GETS PERSONAL
The story does not end there. The slander in Komori’s Sankei column was bad enough; what followed was worse. Blogs by leading commentators are popular in Japan, and Komori was soon in full cry. As in his Sankei column, he named a university I was associated with then and demanded to know why such an anti-Japan person as myself was being allowed to poison the minds of young Japanese students. Soon the entire nation seemed to be up in arms. Dozens of threatening letters flooded into the offices of those responsible for my university connection, demanding that I be sacked immediately. (Fortunately those offices did not bow to this especially cowardly form of rightwing pressure, but the damage was done.)
The fallout continued. Requests to write articles for the magazines and newspapers I had long known dried up. Invitations to give talks on Japan’s lively lecture circuit died overnight. One of Japan’s largest trading companies abruptly canceled my already-announced appointment as outside board director with the vague excuse of wanting to avoid controversy.
I had long known about the Japanese sensitivity to the abductee question, and had made it clear I had no liking for the North Korean government in The Japan Times and other articles. But equally I had little liking for the way Japan was using the abductee issue to stall or prevent efforts by other nations to come to terms with North Korea, and to whip up anti-Pyongyang feeling here at home. The Megumi charred-bone story had played a key role in it all.
Even worse was one of the likely byproducts of all this: namely, that North Korea now has every incentive to ensure there are no more abductees to be released. Meanwhile, their parents are being cruelly led to believe a release will occur if only Tokyo tried a bit harder in its clearly counterproductive efforts to pressure Pyongyang.
The bottom line? First, know that there are people out there monitoring every word you write that appears critical of official policies. And second, realize that in this mood-dominated society you cannot expect anyone to come to your aid once the nationalistic rightwing mood creators, now on the rise, decide to attack you.
Freedom of speech and opinion is being whittled away relentlessly. ❶
Gregory Clark is a former diplomat and was the head of the Tokyo bureau of The Australian. He is also the author of several books, including Understanding the Japanese (Kinseido, 1982).