Mount Fuji

Open debate under threat in Japan 


Japan is debating its place in the region and the world. Or so it seems. There is no mistaking the attempt by some Japanese officials and intellectuals — from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on down — to redefine Tokyo's international role. That makes it critical that there be tolerance of free and open discussion of issues.

This process is behind the prime minister's controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the historic deployment of the Self-Defense Forces to aid coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the redefinition of the US-Japan security alliance that has been laid out in various documents, most notably the "2+2 meetings" of the two allies' leading foreign-policy and defense officials.

Japan's new debate on its postwar history (not to mention the more politically sensitive topic of its prewar history) and the broad range of questions about the institutions and the practices that have accompanied that notion of a postwar Japan are, for many, well overdue. But they are also for many — inside and outside Japan — a topic fraught with social tension and contest.

This debate shakes the core understandings of several generations within Japan, and of an international audience that is nervous about where and how its outcome might affect the rest of the world. Japan's debate over its past and its prescriptions for a new foundation for its foreign policy are deeply intertwined. And this discussion will inevitably bare deep social scars and involve heated emotions.

We have great faith in Japanese democracy and believe this debate is for the good of the country. We believe that this discussion will strengthen the foundation of Japanese foreign policy and the US-Japan alliance.

But we are also concerned by recent developments. Last week, the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA), a Foreign Ministry-managed think-tank, suspended publication of a commentary series that focused on Japanese foreign policy.

The suspension followed criticism of its contents by prominent journalist Yoshihisa Komori, who took offense at such comments as "Japan-watchers [in foreign countries] increasingly blame the deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations on Japan, describing Japan's China policies as mindless and provocative, self-righteous and gratuitous. But in the country itself, there is scant awareness that Japan is perceived [by some countries] as being nationalistic, militaristic or hawkish," and "Critics see in Prime Minister Koizumi's stance on Yasukuni a lack of repentance for past imperial aggression in Asia, about which Japan has long been silent."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has, since the 1970s, played a key role in providing English-language materials, written by Japanese, that would otherwise be unavailable to an international audience. It publishes Japan Echo, which compiles and translates into English excerpts of articles in leading Japanese journals such as Bungei Shunju, Chuokoron, and Shokun. It also publishes Gaiko Forum, a journal that focuses exclusively on Japan's foreign policy. Thus JIIA's new initiative is part of a long-standing effort to bring the range of Japanese views and insights to a growing and increasingly interested international audience.

Behind this incident are old feuds, intellectual antagonisms that are reflected in labels such as "progressive left" and "conservative right". These markers of the so-called 1955 system (after the year the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, was formed) are used today as accusations to denounce individuals rather than to look at the merits of their arguments. At precisely the time when the debate over ideas in Japan is so fluid, this lingering impulse to shut down the opposition must be resisted. Indeed, what was so encouraging about the JIIA commentary series was that it moved away from the "progressive left-conservative right" dichotomy and brought a fresh analytical perspective to the conversation.

All three protagonists in this story have spent much of their careers abroad, and they have been active participants in shaping the debate on Japan's foreign policy.

The president of JIIA, Yukio Sato, Japan's former ambassador to the United Nations, is one of the country's leading diplomats, and a policy intellectual who has published and actively participated in international relations debates in Japan, Europe and the United States. The editor of the commentary series, Masaru Tamamoto, is an internationally respected academic and essayist on Japan's domestic debates over its national identity and its role in the world. The critic, Yoshihisa Komori, is an outspoken senior journalist for the Sankei Shimbun who has served in Washington and Beijing and who has in the past demonstrated sensitivity to international criticism of Japan's new debate over its history. Yet the three have very different takes on Japan's national-identity debate.

This incident has provoked heated debate among Japan watchers and has occasioned provocative statements suggesting that it recalls earlier periods of Japanese history. Inside Japan, however, commentary on websites has taken Komori's criticism to heart. Sato has formally responded to his critic in the Sankei, and suspended publication until he revamps the editorial procedures for the JIIA series.

For now, criticism that JIIA should not be producing material that is perceived as critical of Japan seems to have held the day. But the sensitivities that prompted the suspension of JIIA's online commentary deserve greater attention. Is this an isolated event prompted by long-standing intellectual antagonisms? Is it a difference of opinion over the legitimacy of a government-sponsored research institute hosting a forum for contending perspectives over Japan's foreign policy? Or is this a sign of an increasingly intolerant political climate within Japan?

The suspension of the JIIA commentary is troubling because it provides fodder for those who suggest that unaccountable, behind-the-scenes forces are shaping Japan's current foreign-policy debate. An editorial criticizing a think-tank's commentary would not, in most democratic societies, be cause for shutting down the commentary and a public apology by its director. Rather, it would be cause for more debate backed, one would hope, by reasoned consideration of alternative viewpoints. The timing of this incident is important, however.

At precisely the time when open debate over questions such as Yasukuni Shrine visits, constitutional revision, and Japan's foreign-policy priorities would be most welcome, there seems to be a growing hesitancy in the public discourse. Sensitivities over the public mood in Japan, coupled with the demonstrated behavior of some rather murky and unaccountable self-proclaimed "right wing" forces, are creating limitations for those whose participation in the public-policy debate is vital — Japan's political leaders and foreign-policy practitioners.

More disturbing than the criticism of JIIA are the "incidents" in recent years that imply threats and sanction — even violence — against individuals with public responsibility for articulating Japan's foreign-policy goals. In September 2003, Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Hitoshi Tanaka, then responsible for Japan's negotiations with North Korea, received death threats after Koizumi's visit to Pyongyang failed to bring home all of the Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo's controversial governor, told reporters that this death threat was "only natural", suggesting that the threat of violence against a public official was tolerable. Surprisingly, there was no rebuttal to Ishihara from Japan's political leadership.

Last week, the home and office of Koichi Kato were burned by a self-proclaimed "rightist" after criticism by the politician, a longtime advocate of closer Japan-China relations, of the prime minister's visits to Yasukuni. Fortunately, Kato's 90-year-old mother was not home. Yet again, Japan's top government leaders were silent. This silence does not befit a democracy and undermines Tokyo's moral authority. Worse, it feeds the exaggerated claims of critics who fear that the country has not learned lessons from its prewar experience.

Next month, the LDP will hold its presidential election. Koizumi's successor as president of the party and, hence, prime minister of the country will take on the challenge of crafting and leading Japan's future. Leadership carries with it the responsibility of participating in and shaping a public-policy agenda. It will be incumbent upon the new prime minister, and indeed upon all of Japan's political leaders, to draw the line between, on the one hand, vigorous and open debate over the ideas and principles that will shape the future and, on the other, a debate that carries with it the threat of public rebuke — or worse yet, violence. They must stand up for the norms of acceptable behavior in a modern democracy.

Silence in the face of intolerance and intimidation will only erode confidence in Japan's democracy, most importantly within Japan but also beyond its borders. Japan's government leaders must speak out against potential censorship and implicit threats against those who hold divergent viewpoints, and must condemn without reservation politically motivated violence.

Editor's note: Sheila Smith ( is a researcher at the East-West Center, and Brad Glosserman ( is executive director at the Pacific Forum CSIS. I'd like to thank Brad for his kind permission to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.