Anywhere else, it might have played out as just another low-stakes battle between policy wonks. But in Japan, a country struggling to find a brand of nationalism that it can embrace, a recent war of words between a flamboyant newspaper editorialist and an editor at a premier foreign-policy think tank was something far more alarming: the latest assault in a campaign of right-wing intimidation of public figures that is squelching free speech and threatening to roll back civil society.
On Aug. 12, Yoshihisa Komori -- a Washington-based editorialist for the ultra-conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper -- attacked an article by Masaru Tamamoto, the editor of Commentary, an online journal run by the Japan Institute of International Affairs. The article expressed concern about the emergence of Japan’s strident, new "hawkish nationalism," exemplified by anti-China fear-mongering and official visits to a shrine honoring Japan’s war dead. Komori branded the piece "anti-Japanese," and assailed the mainstream author as an "extreme leftist intellectual."
But he didn’t stop there. Komori demanded that the institute’s president, Yukio Satoh, apologize for using taxpayer money to support a writer who dared to question Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, in defiance of Chinese protests that it honors war criminals from World War II.
Remarkably, Satoh complied. Within 24 hours, he had shut down Commentary and withdrawn all of the past content on the site -- including his own statement that it should be a place for candid discourse on Japan’s foreign-policy and national-identity challenges. Satoh also sent a letter last week to the Sankei editorial board asking for forgiveness and promising a complete overhaul of Commentary’s editorial management.
The capitulation was breathtaking. But in the political atmosphere that has overtaken Japan, it’s not surprising. Emboldened by the recent rise in nationalism, an increasingly militant group of extreme right-wing activists who yearn for a return to 1930s-style militarism, emperor-worship and "thought control" have begun to move into more mainstream circles -- and to attack those who don’t see things their way.
Just last week, one of those extremists burned down the parental home of onetime prime ministerial candidate Koichi Kato, who had criticized Koizumi’s decision to visit Yasukuni this year. Several years ago, the home of Fuji Xerox chief executive and Chairman Yotaro "Tony" Kobayashi was targeted by handmade firebombs after he, too, voiced the opinion that Koizumi should stop visiting Yasukuni. The bombs were dismantled, but Kobayashi continued to receive death threats. The pressure had its effect. The large business federation that he helps lead has withdrawn its criticism of Koizumi’s hawkishness toward China and his visits to Yasukuni, and Kobayashi now travels with bodyguards.
In 2003, then-Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka discovered a time bomb in his home. He was targeted for allegedly being soft on North Korea. Afterward, conservative Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara contended in a speech that Tanaka "had it coming."
Another instance of free-thinking-meets-intimidation involved Sumiko Iwao, an internationally respected professor emeritus at Keio University. Right-wing activists threatened her last February after she published an article suggesting that much of Japan is ready to endorse female succession in the imperial line; she issued a retraction and is now reportedly lying low.
Such extremism raises disturbing echoes of the past. In May 1932, Japanese Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai was assassinated by a group of right-wing activists who opposed his recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Manchuria and his staunch defense of parliamentary democracy. In the post-World War II era, right-wing fanatics have largely lurked in the shadows, but have occasionally threatened those who veer too close to or speak too openly about sensitive topics concerning Japan’s national identity, war responsibility or imperial system.
What’s alarming and significant about today’s intimidation by the right is that it’s working -- and that it has found some mutualism in the media. Sankei’s Komori has no direct connection to those guilty of the most recent acts, but he’s not unaware that his words frequently animate them -- and that their actions in turn lend fear-fueled power to his pronouncements, helping them silence debate. What’s worse, neither Japan’s current prime minister nor Shinzo Abe, the man likely to succeed him in next month’s elections, has said anything to denounce those trying to stifle the free speech of Japan’s leading moderates.
There are many more cases of intimidation. I have spoken to dozens of Japan’s top academics, journalists and government civil servants in the past few days; many of them pleaded with me not to disclose this or that incident because they feared violence and harassment from the right. One top political commentator in Japan wrote to me: "I know the right-wingers are monitoring what I write and waiting to give me further trouble. I simply don’t want to waste my time or energy for these people."
Japan needs nationalism. But it needs a healthy nationalism -- not the hawkish, strident variety that is lately forcing many of the country’s best lights to dim their views.