A statue symbolizing "comfort women" is seen during a weekly anti-Japan rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: REUTERS file
national

Japan soul-searching over freedom of expression

50 Comments
By Chang-Ran Kim

Withdrawn endorsements for films and art exhibitions are re-igniting a debate in Japan over self-censorship, exposing a struggle to balance freedom of expression with a cultural penchant for avoiding conflict.

The latest controversy arose when Japan last week cancelled its endorsement of an art exhibition in Austria commemorating 150 years of diplomatic relations. The collection includes work that critics say paint an unflattering picture of Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

"We made the judgment that the contents of the exhibition did not promote the mutual understanding and friendly relations between Japan and Austria," Seiichiro Taguchi, director of the foreign ministry's Central and South Eastern Europe Division, told Reuters.

The exhibition, titled "Japan Unlimited", opened in late September and will run to Nov 24, now without the official Japan-Austria anniversary year logo.

It includes a video of a likeness of Abe apologizing for Japan's wartime aggression, as well as a satirical depiction of U.S.-Japan relations through a rendition of a famous photograph of wartime Emperor Hirohito posing with U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, who led the Allied occupation of Japan after World War Two.

Public broadcaster NHK and other media carried news of the government's withdrawal of its backing for the Vienna exhibition, igniting a clamor on social media - with many people, including lawmakers, supporting the decision.

Self-censorship is not new in Japan - film distributors famously cut out newsreel footage of Japanese soldiers committing atrocities in Nanjing from Oscar-winning film "The Last Emperor" in the late 1980s - but a recent worsening of relations with South Korea has unsettled nerves over the topic of Japan's wartime actions.

The discourse over artistic freedom reached fever pitch this year when the Aichi Triennale art festival pulled a statue symbolizing so-called comfort women - girls and women forced to work in Japanese military brothels - after organizers received threats.

Some of the Japanese artists featured in the Vienna exhibition had also shown their work at the Aichi festival.

Comfort women were also the subject of documentary film "Shunsenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue", the screening of which was initially cancelled at a Kawasaki film festival last month. Organizers later reversed the decision, apologizing for caving in to threats and after security measures were put in place.

A few months ago, Shibata city in northern Japan made news when its board of education refused to back the screening of the 2017 biographical film "Park Yeol", about an early-20th century Korean anarchist and independence activist that includes scenes critical of Emperor Hirohito.

The movie also touches on the massacre of ethnic Koreans by mobs after the Great Kanto Earthquake that leveled Tokyo in 1923.

The organizer of the event then sought - and got - the support of the city's general affairs division to show the film.

"I think Japanese people have a tendency to overthink things - 'what would happen if we did this or that,'" organizer Tetsuo Saito told Reuters. "As a result, we take the safest route instead of trying to break new ground.

"I feel a sense of cultural limitation in that sense. But on the other hand, there are people - even if it is a minority - who are taking up the challenge, so not all is lost."

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

50 Comments
Login to comment

"avoiding conflict" aka not taking responsibility aka avoiding embarrassment aka...

5 ( +22 / -17 )

In my opinion far too many politicians are often overly sensitive to issues like this, and then they go and tick everyone else in the region off, by visiting Yasukuni.

Kind of hypocritical!

9 ( +28 / -19 )

Here we go again with the baseless notion that Japanese are afraid to speak out lest they stand out.

Utter nonsense. Whether a road rage incident or protesting American military presence, anyone that's read articles on this website the last few years will know that many Japanese are hardly afraid to speak out and engage.

-9 ( +24 / -33 )

Freedom of expression is quite a conflicting emotion to me here, as obviously in a very old fashioned, male dominated, hierarchy structured, patriarchal society...what place has freedom of expression?

That is the right given to all to equalize us, to tell us to listen to all, and not just the big and powerful.

Spare me the nonsense and get on or get off the bus.

9 ( +11 / -2 )

I think what Japanese people need the most is tolerance. One of the most striking things about Japanese culture is just how intolerant people are about "the different". They do not tolerate different beliefs, different behavior, different speech, different values. They have no tolerance for anybody who does anything differently from "the norm". Everybody knows that individual expression is highly discouraged and suppressed in Japan, but the core issue here is the lack of tolerance for people who are different. It's a cultural problem too. People pay too much attention about what other people do, as oppose to just let them be, and let others do whatever they want. It's very hard for them to just accept other people's differences. They need to learn how to be tolerant, and how to "live and let live".

On the other hand, Japan has a very deeply ingrained bulling and public shaming culture. Anybody who doesn't conform to the norm gets bullied. England has the same type of culture, and despite being more open and having a relatively big percentage of immigrants, that bulling culture is still there. So it will take at least several decades for Japan to change this aspect of their culture, even after they accept a large number of immigrants who will inevitably contribute to cultural changes in society.

But also, like i said in my other comment, when it comes to their historical issues, the Japanese think if they "admit" to these crimes, and if the world "knows" about it, their image will be lost, they will lose face, and they will be bullied and tormented forever. The nationalists don't want that to happen to them. The other two groups of people are the ones who have sort of accepted their fate, and then there's the more intelligent internationalized ones who know nobody is going to bully or judge Japan over their history.

The bottom line is, one of the most important virtues people can have is tolerance. Just being open minded and tolerant of different ideas and opinions, even when you are 1 million percent sure you are right, and the other person is wrong. Just be open minded, and accept that there is 1 percent chance you could be wrong, and listen to what they have to say, and then reexamine your own views. It's amazing how much people can learn and improve themselves by just being open minded enough to allow themselves to be exposed to new information.

4 ( +24 / -20 )

There is a big difference between freedom of expression and freedom of fact.

-24 ( +3 / -27 )

This is not 'self censorship ' .... the endorsement for the exhibition was withdrawn after an ' unnamed Japanese lawmaker ' got wind of the exhibits and complained to Foreign Ministry about it. Alas over sensitive right wing denialists who dominate J politics strike again.

6 ( +20 / -14 )

Yubaru

In my opinion far too many politicians are often overly sensitive to issues like this, and then they go and tick everyone else in the region off, by visiting Yasukuni.

Kind of hypocritical!

My feelings exactly. Couldn't have said it better myself.

This is not 'self censorship ' .... the endorsement for the exhibition was withdrawn after an ' unnamed Japanese lawmaker ' got wind of the exhibits and complained to Foreign Ministry about it. Alas over sensitive right wing denialists who dominate J politics strike again.

exactly! well said brother!

1 ( +16 / -15 )

Gotta love the western press. Japan should respect freedom of expression until Japan goes to Yasukuni Shrine and waves the Rising Sun flag.

….WTH! I have NEVER read ANYONE on JT who proposed banning or not discussing anything about yasukuni or the rising sun flag.

I have read PLENTY criticizing both of the above, totally fair game in my opinion, same as those trying to defend them, who I happen to believe are mistaken but they are FREE to voice their opinions!!

Unlike Japanese artwork that happens to be uncomfortable which as we can see the powers that be would clearly LOVE to shut that stuff DOWN!!  THAT is not good, just saying!

0 ( +12 / -12 )

Look we all instinctively know at a personal level, if you cant take criticism of any kind, whether it be constructive or not, then you simply aren't mature enough to be at the adults table. Those that do nothing but criticize too expose themselves as immature, naive, vengeful and bitter. Successful, competent people simply don't carry on like that.

Let freedom of speech be one of the tenants of the free world. Shut nothing down, let it all be out there in a marvelous display of human nature at its best and worst. After all, it shows us how to ( or not to! ) conduct our own selves in a sophisticated, mature and well meaning manner. This goes both for individuals and nations too. As above so below.

10 ( +13 / -3 )

How can a culture that promotes blind subservience as a good thing fit into the mold of freedom of expression? These are two very incompatible things. Japan does not have true freedom of expression. Only an imitation.

3 ( +18 / -15 )

and South Korea? Interesting that Chang-Ran Kim didn't mention the case of the a renowned professor of sociology at South Korea’s prestigious Yonsei University has come under criminal investigation by Seoul police after a civil society group filed a complaint that he allegedly spread false information, by referring to Korean women sex slaves during the Second World War as ‘prostitutes’ during a university lecture.

@alwaysspeaking - You and a few other accounts post this a lot, but the article is about freedom of expression in Japan, not South Korea.

Deflecting criticism by saying "but what about xxx" is called whataboutery and not at all a constructive way to have a debate.

4 ( +19 / -15 )

The artists are free to express. Japan doesn't have to engage with what the artists want to convey, ie 'political satire'. End of story, not even news.

There are much more worthy things to celebrate beetween Japan and Austria. Japan is right to say thanks but no thanks.

0 ( +16 / -16 )

The expression of a lie is simply a defamation act.

-2 ( +13 / -15 )

If it were foreign artists painting a black picture of Japan, I would kind of agree to how they dealt with it, but looking up the Japan Unlimited website, it is mainly Japanese Artists-in-Residence exhibiting their art there:

https://www.mqw.at/en/institutions/q21/frei-raum-q21-exhibition-space/2019/japan-unlimited/

So what the Japanese government is doing is basically censorship of their own artists, and has nothing to do with international relations, if you ask me.

And does "mutual understanding" mean to only look at the good sides of the the other country? I think not.

7 ( +18 / -11 )

Oh yes! If it doesn't please us, if it doesn't reflect our point of view .....

.... we won't endorse or support it.

So, constructive criticism is not desired.

0 ( +12 / -12 )

So what the Japanese government is doing is basically censorship of their own artists

Hyperbole, may be even disingenuous...the exhibition is not censored, obviously, it's there for all who are interested.

Is it worthy of support by the government? May be not...just get on with it. Since when is government support a necessity for art?

4 ( +16 / -12 )

Freedom of expression also extends to the word "no".

You can say it, you can record it, you can put it on a poster.

Does not mean you are guaranteed a sponsor, or an audience.

That's all part and parcel of free speech, it carries consequences.

This show goes on, it wasn't stopped, it's just without the endorsement from the ones who were offended, and, isn't that their right?

4 ( +15 / -11 )

Japanese artist and perform the best in expressing their freedom of expression when they are not tied in to any government sponsored project. Example is Hirokazu Koreeda who are not bothered to get Japanese government's recognition.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

It's not "self-censorship", it's censorship - the government is stepping in to stop private citizens express themselves, and in a foreign country. The Austrians are acutely aware of the dangers of authoritarianism, while it's the water the Japanese swim in.

8 ( +17 / -9 )

"Example is Hirokazu Koreeda who are not bothered to get Japanese government's recognition." Which has not stopped members of the LDP lambasting him and labelling him ”反日”. Which is their right as citizens, but not as politicians who claim to represent their constituents. They want to have their cake and eat it.

7 ( +14 / -7 )

So what the Japanese government is doing is basically censorship of their own artists, and has nothing to do with international relations, if you ask me.

If this was supposed to be a show to promote friendship between Austria and Japan,

the artists should have stayed within these guidelines.

To try and make a name for themselves for producing "anti" Japan art,

outside of Japan, is lazy sensationalism,

regardless if anyone agrees with the content, or not.

And does "mutual understanding" mean to only look at the good sides of the the other country? I think not.

These artists use their citizenship to participate and disparage their government,

in a friendship between two nations show.

Their actions remind me a 2 year old demanding attention by pissing on the rug,

at a get-together.

1 ( +17 / -16 )

Japan has awesome freedom of expression - as long as it is sanctioned under Abe's secrecy act, of course.

Japan is not democracy! It is a fascist state run by bureaucrats. The only difference between communism and fascism is, communism is run by the military. I'm quite sure that if Japan had not had its constitution written by the US after the war, Japan would have become a communist country like its mother country, China.

-4 ( +16 / -20 )

Japan soul-searching over freedom of expression

Wouldn't this title be more appropriate?

"Japan soul-searching over the discomfort and embarrassment of it's brutal 1904 to 1945 history".

If the government stopped pretending to be the victim (or liberators of Asia) and accepted what Japan did. You would earn much more respect and admiration for being open and honest (like Germany was and continues to be)... Constantly denying or trying to hide is pathetic, cowardly and unsympathetic to your Asia neighbors.

Being honest and humble is liberating :)

4 ( +18 / -14 )

Disillusioned

”Japan is a fascist state”

My friend, you have no idea what your talking about.

I’d wager you have never lived in a country with a dictatorship, seen real suffering, or even fascism!

-2 ( +11 / -13 )

Disillisioned* although there maybe some interesting trends of late I wouldn’t go as far as to say we live in a fascist state by any measure of the Schtick. May wanna check the 20th century of what a real fascist state looks like. That fact that you are even writing that and not fearing an imminent knock on your door is proof that it may be a bit of an emotional exaggeration. There’s a little thing called confirmation bias to be considered, the pen name maybe your life dude!

5 ( +9 / -4 )

So anyone explains how come freedom of expression is almighty but freedom of thought/opinion and express them is not like hate-speech?

1 ( +6 / -5 )

They dodge responsibility for anything on their end and try to set the pace to the world that everything revolves around their culture, trends, and ethics, and therefore they are always right. They muffle freedom of speech and expression of others (mainly individuals). If they do not do these things, they will lose their control over others. Kinda seems like crabs in a bucket.

4 ( +7 / -3 )

No, I don't believe the issue the author is discussing is a "freedom of speech" issue but a problem of not recognizing colonial issues.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

The only difference between communism and fascism is, communism is run by the military.

Nope, because when that happens - it ceases to become communism. It becomes totalitarianism or authoritarianism or a military dictatorship.

Like every country, Japan has its good and bad. Certain politicians need to grow a thicker skin, sure. But at the same time they also need to be relatable to the people. The Abes and actual authoritarian counterparts (like Xi) are not in touch with the people.

7 ( +10 / -3 )

ilovecoffee pretty much sums up Japan very well. Its why its a difficult place for non Japanese to live long term.

0 ( +8 / -8 )

Poor Japanese , Very much needed. Many lost souls in Japan.

-8 ( +2 / -10 )

Japan has awesome freedom of expression 

Indeed - in Comiket at Tokyo Big Site every summer and winter.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

@thepersoniamnow - I’d wager you have never lived in a country with a dictatorship, seen real suffering, or even fascism!

So, how many fascist countries have you lived in? Japan is not a true democracy nor is it a true fascist state. It is some kind of weird hybrid run by bureaucrats, who also control the media with Abe's secrecy bill.

0 ( +8 / -8 )

"Japan", whatever this entity may represent, doesn't have a "soul" to search, and this is true in spades for its politicians who are entirely given over to calculation and self-interest. The democratic spirit of a people takes generations to grow to maturity. The Japanese have a long road ahead of them, but then no people can rest on their laurels and boast they have reached the pinnacle of democracy.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Disillusioned

Lemme guess...angry language assistant teacher? lol, don’t blame the planet.

0 ( +6 / -6 )

If Japan isn’t a fascist state (as you just affirmed) stop calling it one!

I have lived in 5 continents as an embassy kid and I’ve seen dictatorships. Japan is far from perfect (as democracy as a concept even is), but gimme a break with your hysterics.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

Freedom of expression is fine in Japan. The problem is Japan can't take criticism of any kind from overseas

5 ( +8 / -3 )

What springs to mind, there are so many worker/peoples protests happening across the globe, more than any I can remember in my life time and many investigated by the young people.

There are the globally climate change protests.

But also people protesting in Hong Kong, Lebanon, France, Spain, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, Iraq.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

When a neighbor can let their kids run and slam balls against the walls in a mansion and nobody says squat and god forbid you bring it up at a meeting says it all. Wimps.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

On the other hand, Japan has a very deeply ingrained bulling and public shaming culture

The bowing, dogeza, and the apologies of wrongdoers are similar to Hester Prynne standing on the scaffold for three hours.

the Japanese think if they "admit" to these crimes, and if the world "knows" about it, their image will be lost, they will lose face, and they will be bullied and tormented forever. The nationalists don't want that to happen to them. 

The concept of forgiveness and regeneration is thin. The world already knows yet is able to separate the past, move forward, and engage with Japan, something unimaginable beyond the latter of the two groups described.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

If people were encouraged to speak out more and have opinions when they are growing up rather than programmed to defer, deflect, obey and avoid, then they might be better equipped intellectually, emotionally and socially to deal with 'real issues' that require thought, discussion, and debate.

Too many people here seem to think they are obliged to have certain opinions about certain issues - especially when in the company of other Japanese people. It really is OK to talk about issues - in fact it's the grown up thing to do.

It really is quite sad that really nice, seemingly intelligent people are unable to express themselves freely, and lack the really useful skill of critical thinking which helps us to see through all the BS that is fed to us by those in positions of power and influence.

I guess the brainwashing basically works.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

I'm quite sure that if Japan had not had its constitution written by the US after the war, Japan would have become a communist country like its mother country, China.

I would not say that japan is a fascist state, but instead its had a fairly recent experiment, with fascist origins. I have always thought that a countries present culture is made up of remnants of whatever its past was, as their is always residue thats left over, and that never completely disappears.

Agreed, 100% that Japan could of went communist if Russia would of took over. In many ways it feels communist from the commune behaviors of the mansion dwellers to school education. The transition would of been painless because its already a commune society.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Many Western countries have also slowly seen the freedom of expression wither away. Hate speech laws, cosplay (see Trudeau and others), and even more speech and press we disagree with and find abhorrent like certain prn. So, is freedom of expression really absolute? I think not. Anywhere.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

It really is quite sad that really nice, seemingly intelligent people are unable to express themselves freely, and lack the really useful skill of critical thinking which helps us to see through all the BS that is fed to us by those in positions of power and influence.

I guess the brainwashing basically works.

keen observation but I think if you dig deeper, youll find many Japanese do know about the BS, but pretend not to know and that pretending, is part of the act, all the while plotting or making alliances. It goes back to samurai clans, loyalty and treachery, and Japanese would rather play this game, than use the more direct approach as they think more gets accomplished this way. I believe they are thinking, but its in a more deceitful and tactful way.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I should caveat that I do not agree with the expressers of what I had just listed ;)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Many Western countries have also slowly seen the freedom of expression wither away

I would have to say, yes and no. For ex. there once was many slurs used against gay people, quite openly used on mainstream TV, that insulted that group openly and frequently. That is no longer tolerated because it insults them. In that regard, I think its not a suppression of freedom of expression but instead progression. Whats interesting about China and Japan however, is that they kick and scream whenever the slightest perceived injustice is done to them overseas, but that is not reciprocally practiced or applied in their own country to immigrants or foreigners.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

t's not "self-censorship", it's censorship - the government is stepping in to stop private citizens express themselves, and in a foreign country. 

No it is not. The government is not stepping in to stop them either. It just cancelled endorsements or financial supports which are funded by bloody tax payers money.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

I really don't see any 'soul searching' going on in Japan. Japan's intelligentsia maybe, but the majority of the population? Nothing. I actually have a lot of respect for Japanese academics, they know their stuff and it's a shame they're often sidelined by right-wing politicians for telling inconvenient truths (like the pension system). Unfortunately people don't seem to appreciate them, probably because the university system doesn't really require serious study so they don't realise what it takes

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Freedom of fiction, oh wait, freedom of lying is not something Japan should soul-search.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites