The Abe Government, Freedom of Speech, and War Apology

Associations, Events, People and Places — By on December 5, 2016 at 12:14 AM
Japan Society Nov 21 2016 001

Professor Arthur Stockwin


The Abe Government, Freedom of Speech, and War Apology – Japan Society London lecture

By James Brewer

Japan’s government is set on disquieting policies including a clampdown on freedom of information at a time of growing triumphalism by right-wing nationalists in other major countries.

Professor Arthur Stockwin, an Emeritus Fellow of St Antony’s College Oxford, and an expert on the history of modern Japan, said that with the election victory of prime minister Shinzo Abe in December 2012, “the character of Japanese politics has changed in ways that may be considered fundamental.”

In a Japan Society lecture in London, Prof Stockwin spoke of “the very important and complex shift that has taken place in the Japanese political system.” Mr Abe, head of the Liberal Democratic Party, came to power with what Prof Stockwin called “a hard-right agenda on Constitution, defence, historical interpretation, human rights, and freedom of speech.”

The Oxford academic said that the politics of Japan has moved sharply to the right since the 1990s, especially since the election of Mr Abe. Internationally “this topsy-turvy year of 2016” had seen the UK vote to leave the European Union, Donald J Trump’s election as president of the US, in Germany Mrs Merkel under fire for allowing refugees into the country,  while the next president of France could be Marine Le Pen and her main rival is seen as strongly conservative François Fillon, and radical right-wing governments were threatened elsewhere.

Japan Society chairman David Warren, with Prof Stockwin.

Japan Society chairman David Warren, with Prof Stockwin.

Immigration, refugees and jihad terrorism are far less salient issues in Japan than in many states, said Prof Stockwin.

“Japan is not Europe, nor is it North America, but there are important parallels we may detect. In Japan, neo-liberalism and globalisation have diluted many of the safeguards.”

Abenomics – a plan aimed at reviving the economy by increasing money supply, increasing government spending and structural reforms — had failed to make much impact, but it had electoral appeal enabling the government to sustain its popularity.

Prof Stockwin turned to two contentious topics that have marked Mr Abe’s period in office: the Designated Secrets Law of 2013 and the question of apology for Japan’s actions during World War II.

The Designated Secrets Law was passed through the Diet (parliament) only a year after the government came to power and came into effect at the end of 2014. “I think that Japan was under strong pressure from the US to tighten its laws, but I think there are real problems with this,” said Prof Stockwin.

The Act needed to be seen in the context of the government’s ambition to enter into a closer and more reciprocal defence agreement with Washington.

It gave enhanced powers to the Cabinet and government but caused fierce controversy among Japanese and non-Japanese commentators. Among critics of the greater government secrecy measures designed to enhance state power and limit individual rights was the Press Club of Japan.

Under the law, government officials and defence industry employees accused of leaking state secrets face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $100,000. Journalists could fall foul of the law in trying to unearth what was going on in the corridors of power and be sent to prison for up to five years.

Shinzo Abe

Shinzo Abe

Non-disclosure of state secrets can be extended from 30 to 60 years, a much longer period than in the UK and many other countries. It was argued that there was an inadequate definition of what was a state secret, allowing government ministries or agencies to make the decision themselves. There appeared to be no prohibition against the destruction of sensitive material, despite evidence that such destruction happened widely.

Prof Stockwin saw the Act as part of a broader policy to restrict freedom of information. “It seems to me that its scope is remarkably wide.” People had been put under pressure to avoid contentious issues, such as the planned reactivation of nuclear power stations, the US bases on Okinawa, and the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant. Had the March 11 2011 disaster taken place at a later date it seemed that much of what happened would not have been able to be reported.

Of the secrets law, Prof Stockwin said: “It is from the perspective of free speech very much subject to criticism. Newspapers and so on are having difficulties in dealing with the present regime. There is quite a substantial movement that has developed since 2012 in favour of more democratic approaches, and it is up to them to do something about it. It will be an uphill struggle, undoubtedly, but I wish them well.”

Prof Stockwin was further worried that “strongly anti-liberal individuals” had been appointed to the board of state broadcaster NHK.

On the issue of war apology, Prof Stockwin said that in Japan, “war memory refuses to die.” He said that for the established statement on the anniversary of World War II defeat, Mr Abe retained the vocabulary of apology, remorse and so on, which had been most notable in the “gold standard” of war apologies made in 1995 by then Social Democratic Party prime minister Tomiichi Muroyama. This contrasted with an informal statement by Mr Abe in a magazine in 2009: “Japan is not bound forever by the personal historical understanding of Mr Murayama. The Murayama statement was too one-sided, and I should like to come up with something more balanced.”

Such was the extent of denigration of war apology by Mr Abe and his supporters over time that its meaning had been “hollowed out.” This included an extensive campaign to undermine evidence of forced prostitution in Wold War II military brothels. Mr Abe said no evidence had been unearthed of coercion, although a stream of researchers had sought to demonstrate the contrary.

Said Prof Stockwin: “We may detect a coherent strategy. The form of profuse apologies has been more or less maintained, but highly organised efforts have been made over a long period to deprive these apologies of real meaning.”

The backsliding over expressions of contrition was counterproductive, worsening relations with China and South Korea.

The speaker asked how far we should regard the shift to the right in Japan as causally similar to rightward trends in other countries.

He recounted that the Abe administration followed a little over three years of government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which after early promise had collapsed in disarray. The DPJ government, however, was significant because it interrupted a previously near-total monopoly of power at national level (except for a brief interval in the 1990s) by the Liberal Democratic Party since it was founded in 1955.

The return to office of the LDP in 2012 was not a return simply to “business as usual.” There used to be a real balance in the LDP. There was a corrupt system in many ways, and the government in 1993 determined to challenge that; but unfortunately the demise of factions had a contrary effect, which was to unify the party under the auspices of a group or series of groups which adhered to hard right, almost militaristic, positions.

Since the 1990s the party had become far more united, and the power of an LDP prime minister a good deal greater than used to be the case. Mr Abe’s government faced an opposition that is weak and divided.

Calling Mr Abe a “nostalgic nationalist,” Prof Stockwin said that the prime minister was determined to rewrite modern history, including the period of the Asia-Pacific War that ended in 1945. His instincts veered towards the authoritarian, especially in relation to media freedoms.

This came at a time of societal change when “a secure job for life is now the privilege of just a few.” Neets (young people not in education, employment or training) or those who engage in anti-social behaviour or sit in their rooms alone exemplify this problem and might back extremely right-wing “solutions” and assert a renewed national identity.

“I am inclined to conclude on a pessimistic note, and my pessimism is tempered by the enormous respect I have for the Japanese people, but I see the new Japan is also becoming more controlled, less democratic, less orientated towards peace, more inclined to confront neighbouring countries, more inclined to stress the military ethos.”

Questioned on the impact of the relationship with president-elect Trump, Prof Stockwin said there was evidence that a majority of Japanese people was for retention of the country’s “peace” Constitution.

There had been some reaction against Abenomics, “in specific movements and demonstrations, although how far these are in a position to be influential is another question.”

Japan Society chairman David Warren thanked Prof Stockwin, whom he described as a “very distinguished scholar of Japan,” for his extensive analysis of the political scene.

Following his already considerable writings on the country, Prof Stockwin is joint author of Rethinking Japan: The Politics of Contested Nationalism, which is to be published by Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield, based in Maryland.  Publication date is expected to be around March 2017. His co-author is Dr Kweku Ampiah, who teaches in East Asian studies at Leeds University. Originally from Ghana, Dr Ampiah has degrees from two Japanese universities, is fluent in Japanese and his doctorate is from Oxford.

The forthcoming book will cover in further detail the themes of Prof Stockwin’s talk to the Japan Society, with chapters on Abenomics, constitutional revision, the collective defence law, relations with China, Russia and the two Koreas, relations with the wider world (including Japanese Official Development Assistance), and the question of whether Japanese foreign policy should be considered ‘reactive.’

Arthur Stockwin was founding director at the Australian National University of the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies, an institute closely associated with St Antony’s College. In 1982 he returned to the UK to become Nissan Professor of Modern Japanese Studies, and director of the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies at Oxford University. He retired in 2003 but has continued to be active in research and writing, largely on matters relating to Japan.


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