January 2023

Defiance after woman threatens to bomb FCCJ, kill journalists

Artwork by Julio Shiiki

Over the weekend of December 10-11, the FCCJ received several phone calls from a person who threatened to bomb the club and kill two of its journalists. The female caller said in Japanese and English that the journalists (one was Jake Adelstein, the second has requested that their name not be made public) wrote “garbage” about Japan and should leave or “go to Korea”. 

The caller added that she was “against” the FCCJ because it was “established” by General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in postwar Japan. She also warned FCCJ staff to quit what she called an “anti-Japanese” organization. The threats included many of the talking points favoured by the far right in Japan.

The caller – who reportedly holds extreme right-wing and nationalist views – was hardly a seasoned criminal. According to FCCJ staff, she called from her own cellphone and unintentionally recorded her number on the club’s answering machine. When the Marunouchi police turned up on December 12 to listen to the calls, they simply plucked the number from the records and arrested her on suspicion of obstruction of business by force.

Peter Elstrom, the FCCJ president, said the caller acted alone and had no accomplices. “The police said that suspect stated she had a grievance against the FCCJ,” he said in a statement. “She also stated that she did not actually intend to blow up the building. The police have determined that there is no present danger to the FCCJ.”

In a separate statement, the club noted that its objectives are “to provide foreign correspondents in Japan and other journalists with broad access to news sourced in Japan and overseas, to defend the freedom of the press and the free exchange of information, and to promote friendship, harmony, and mutual welfare in both professional and social relations among foreign and Japanese journalists. We will not be swayed by terrorism or threats.”

Threats against the FCCJ are not uncommon. Over the years, multiple club members, including this writer, have received menacing calls, emails and even death threats – mostly from ultranationalists. In response, I removed my home address from my email signature in 2015. In most cases, these threats are little more than the rantings of cranks or eccentrics. Oddly, FCCJ staff have found that the number of threats rises during hot weather.

Andrew Horvat, FCCJ president from 1988-1989, recalls the attempted murder at the club of the Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. In a recent piece for the blog run by FCCJ stalwart Robert Whiting, Horvat said he “saw Tokyo’s finest tackle the knife-wielding would-be killer to the ground, disarm him and remove him from the room in a matter of seconds”. The translator, Professor Hitoshi Igarashi was later killed in a still unsolved murder. 

Things have arguably grown quieter since then. Nevertheless, the latest incident, whatever the outcome (criminal charges appear imminent) is part of a rising global tide of hate against media workers and cannot be dismissed out of hand. Threats of imprisonment, violence and death against the free press keep growing, the Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, warned recently, while the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual prison census found that a record 363 reporters were deprived of their freedom as of December 1 this year.

One reason for the latest assault on journalism is the fracturing of media audiences into increasingly partisan online groups. Guterres cited a “surge in disinformation, online bullying and hate speech, particularly against women journalists”, which he said is “contributing to the stifling of media workers around the globe”.

Japan is rarely physically dangerous for journalists. Satoru Someya, who wrote about organized crime and was kidnapped and murdered in 1993, is one of the very few to have been killed on the job. The most famous assassination of a reporter in postwar Japan was Tomohiro Kojiri, an Asahi Shimbun journalist who was shot in 1987 by right-wing extremists. Kojiri, whose killer has never been caught, had reportedly angered a right-wing extremist with an article describing discrimination against the zainichi, or people of Korean ethnicity who live in Japan.

Still, many foreign correspondents have noticed a surge in online harassment in the last decade. In an article for The Number 1 Shimbun in 2015, Hiroko Tabuchi, former Tokyo correspondent for The New York Times, recalled a stream of hateful invective laced with sexual and ethnic smears. Other journalists deal regularly with harassment and anonymous hate-speech.   

Online mobs (and the threat of a violent fringe) can be an intimidating force. The 2019 Aichi Triennale, for example, was besieged by more than 10,000 angry phone calls and emails from protestors who demanded an exhibition on censored art be shut down. One man, who was later arrested, had faxed in a handwritten threat to firebomb the exhibits in the same week as an arson attack on a Kyoto animation studio that killed 36 people.

Since most of the pandemic restrictions were lifted this year, the FCCJ has been back in the news with a string of widely covered events, notably a lively press conference in October by a defector from the Unification Church – colloquially known as the Moonies – which the church tried to stop. The club’s higher profile has put it back in the public eye. 

FCCJ staff recorded a string of faxes expressing opposition to the Moonies’ presser, which were tossed in the trash. But the latest threat of violence against two of the club's journalists were specific, and had to be taken seriously.

Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice and host of The Evaporated podcast series, said: “There are better ways to express disagreement than threats of violence to reporters, the FCCJ and our hardworking staff. I hope the individual who was arrested gets counseling rather than just jail time.”

FCCJ managers have considered introducing tougher security measures over the years, but ultimately decided that hiring security guards may not be a good look for a press club. We are all hoping that the weekend call was from an isolated crank and not the start of a new more dangerous era for the club’s staff and members.

David McNeill is professor of communications and English at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, and co-chair of the FCCJ’s Freedom of the Press Committee. He was previously a correspondent for The Independent, The Economist and The Chronicle of Higher Education.