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Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006

COUNTERPOINT

Self-censorship conjures ominous echoes of the past


Special to The Japan Times

These days a simple but potent Japanese word is appearing in the media with inordinate frequency. It is hannichi, which means "anti-Japanese." An incident last month brought to mind an earlier era, when the word hannichi was also in common currency. Some words skip decades, returning to haunt the national consciousness.

Last month's incident involved a prestigious research body, the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), and a leading daily newspaper, the Sankei Shinbun. But before going into details, let's jump back, for a moment, to that earlier era.

The period in question covers the first two decades of the Showa Era, which began in 1926. Japan set upon a disastrous course that led to horrendous atrocities committed in Asia and the Pacific and untold destruction of the Japanese homeland. The horror emerged only after the fact. During that era, particularly in the 1930s, Japanese people were full of pride in their country: The vast majority gloried in the "spiritual health" and growing power of the nation.

The cover of Time magazine on Jan. 23, 1933 is witness to that inner confidence. It features a Japanese man in kimono, seated in an armchair with a starched white slip-cover, reading a newspaper. His shaven head and sumptuous hachiji hige (a moustache shaped like the character for "eight," akin to the European handlebar moustache) cuts a formidable image of Japanese dignity.

This man is War Minister Sadao Araki, one of the most powerful figures of his time and a founding member of the arch-rightwing Kodoha (Faction for the Imperial Way). Later, as Education Minister in 1938 and '39, he forged an inviolate spiritual link between the military and the civilian population. School children were inculcated in the military ethos as the core of their seishin kyoiku (spiritual education). Few citizens seemed to mind the concomitant violent intimidation of all dissenters, unlawful jailing and torture under interrogation and the final silencing of any alternative notion of nationhood.

Fear of intimidation

Any view whatsoever that differed from the reigning Showa nationalism, as it was known, was quashed, along with its adherents. The effect was the creation of a society in which self-censorship worked like a well-oiled machine; and fear of intimidation and public exposure rendered all dissidence silent. Nothing is so convincingly silent as the voice of citizens who voluntarily silence themselves.

These days the ghost of Araki must be dancing its spindly dance of death. The old word hannichi is back in vogue, with a vengeance.

Last month's incident exposed this. According to the Asahi Shinbun of Sept. 8, JIIA withdrew an article it had posted in English on its Web site. "How Japan Imagines China and Sees Itself" expressed views that were critical of Japan's new spiritual nationalism, and called attention to the "cult of Yasukuni" generated by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and some of his predecessors. That commentary could in no way be considered radical. In fact, more inflammatory pieces appear daily in the vernacular and English-language press.

Yet on Aug. 12, the Sankei Shinbun lambasted that article on the JIIA's Web site for its "extreme opinions that counter Japan's current diplomacy and the principle of national security." So far, par for the course of polemics in Japan, particularly now that they have come to resemble, in a somewhat more guarded form, those in George W. Bush's America or, for that matter, contemporary China.

But the JIIA response was startling. Instead of defending their right of free speech, they deleted the piece from their site and called an end to the essay series of which it was a part. Furthermore, JIIA President Yukio Sato, one of Japan's most distinguished diplomats (having served as ambassador in Australia and the Netherlands, and as Permanent Representative of Japan to the United Nations) expressed "regret" at having published the commentary in the first place. Sato was quoted in the Asahi Shinbun as saying he would take measures to examine essays, presumably to ensure that they caused no embarrassing confrontations in the future.

This confrontation between the JIIA -- which was founded by former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida in 1959 as "an academically independent institution" and "a forum for informed public debate" -- and the Sankei Shinbun clearly demonstrates a dangerous tendency in Japanese society today.

Manure and all

In the past few years we have also seen the rise of the term kokunai no hannichi nihonjin, meaning "Japanese people who are anti-Japanese here at home." This term actually illustrates a misuse of the word hannichi, which by all rights only applies to non-Japanese who are ill-disposed toward or hate this country. This misused label is now being bandied about as it was in the era of Showa nationalism, implying that Japanese people who disagree with the government are traitors.

It surely looks like The Bush Doctrine ("Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"; from a Sept. 20, 2001, presidential address to a joint session of Congress) transplanted, manure and all, to Japan; but in reality it is no more than the replanting of ideas that flourished here in the first two decades of Showa, ideas which led to the end of all democratic debate in this country. Is this happening again?

That someone of the stature and accomplishment of Sato would retract what was a rather benign commentary on Japan's not-so-new nationalism is a sign that self-censorship through intimidation may once again become an ingrained feature of Japanese social and political life. In a society where decorum dictates the stifling of individual dissent, and silence is a conspiratorial virtue, this is a scary turn of events.

To my mind, the JIIA-Sankei Shinbun incident has become a part of the territory of public intimidation and self-censorship, where all love of country is reduced to a ludicrously simplistic patriotism.

If hannichi continues to catch on as a term of domestic derision, and spiritual nationalism overtakes Japan, we will find incidents like the JIIA-Sankei Shinbun affair happening every day. And then it won't be long before we will be dancing in the arms of that hungry ghost: He is still sitting patiently in the white slip-cover armchair reading his newspaper, waiting for the moment to spring back to life again in his country.



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