Taboo Topics in Japan
An article in the New York Times about screenings of “The Cove” at contains the following two paragraphs, which claims that pressure from right wing groups has effectively made public debate about certain topics “taboo” in Japan:
It is a stark example as well of how public debate on topics deemed delicate here can be easily muffled by a small minority, the most vocal of whom are the country’s estimated 10,000 rightists who espouse hard-line stances in disputes against Tokyo’s neighbors.
Other areas that have been effectively made taboo by the right wing include Japan’s royal family, rights for ethnic minorities, Tokyo’s occupation of parts of Asia in the last century, the nation’s role in World War II and organized crime groups, many of which have close links with the far right.
While one cannot deny that right wing groups tend to make a lot of noise in response to people, movies, or television shows that disagree with their views on those topics, to state that such topics have been “effectively made taboo” in Japan is a gross and unfair exaggeration.
To imply that such topics are effectively taboo, especially the issues about pre-1945 history, is ridiculous. It denies the hard work of Japanese historians and scholars, who have been writing honest accounts of Japanese colonialism and the war for the last 60+ years – accounts that have been published by Japan’s major publishing companies and can be found at bookstores across Japan. Mainstream academia in Japan is dominated by scholars who seriously confront Japan’s past. Japan’s universities educate the producers and directors who go on to create television documentaries that reflect anti-war / anti-colonialism views. While on cannot deny that there have been a few cases in the past where political pressure has caused problems, N-H-K is now strongly and confidently airing high quality history documentaries on a regular basis. The issues facing Japan’s Burakumin, Ainu, and Zainichi Korean minorities are also regularly featured in television documentaries. A honest discussion of these topics has not been “muffled” or made “taboo.” One could even argue that Japan’s right wing is desperately lashing out with loudspeakers and angry phone calls because they are weak and frustrated by the fact Japan’s media and educational institutions tend to favor a left-leaning interpretation of history. Their tactics might yield a small success every now and then, but there’s no need to exaggerate their achievements.
A few more notes:
- As a past example of right wing protests suppressing public debate, the article mentions that “nationalist protests prompted some theaters to cancel screenings of a documentary by a Chinese filmmaker on the Yasukuni shrine” two years ago. The article conveniently fails to mention that the Yasukuni documentary went on to air at a considerable number of theaters, achieving financial success. (Some sites claim it was the highest grossing documentary ever in Japan.)
- Whereas a lot of news articles in the past tended to state that “most” Japanese don’t know about Taiji’s dolphin hunt, this article states that “many” Japanese don’t know about it. I guess it’s hard to make the “most” claim anymore, especially after all the Japanese media coverage the issue has received.
- I didn’t write about the imperial family or the yakuza in this post because I don’t really follow those issues. Maybe some knowledgeable readers could give details about whether or not those are “taboo” topics in the comments section of this post?
Update: It has come to my attention that Hiroko Tabuchi, the author of the NYT article, has responded via her Twitter account after somebody mentioned this post in a tweet to her:
She brings up a single example of right wing politicians putting pressure on N-H-K to edit the contents of a documentary, something that took place nearly 10 years ago. I am fully aware of the 2001 N-H-K documentary incident, and I wrote in the original body of this post that it is undeniable that incidents of this type have occurred. Does that make it fair to declare today that right wingers have turned public debate about Tokyo’s occupation of parts of Asia in the last century and the nation’s role in World War II into a taboo? No, it does not. As I pointed out, it is an unfair exaggeration that fails to recognize the enormous amount of work done by Japanese historians, journalists, and filmmakers. Tabuchi is entitled to her own view, but I must respectfully disagree with her conclusions.
In the past few years, N-H-K has produced quite a few hard-hitting documentaries about pre-1945 history, some of which have been so negative that they caused outraged right-wingers to hold street protests and conservative politicians to lodge official complaints. Despite all this, N-H-K shows no signs of backing down.
Tomorrow night, N-H-K is going to air a documentary about how Koreans were Japanized and drafted as soldiers and laborers during the war. It is part of an ongoing series that looks back on the colonization of Korea on the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of the peninsula. Anyone who thinks that Japan’s wartime past is a “taboo” should check it out.
Update 2: Thank you, M-Bone, for leaving this fantastic comment, which deserves to be lifted from the comment thread and put up here in the main post:
Sebastian Conrad’s award winning book “The Quest for the Lost Nation” has recently been translated into English from German. It argues that, in the first post war decades, leftist Japanese historians worked diligently to outline Japan’s wartime misdeeds while German historians largely ignored the Nazi past. The presence of left-progressive writers in Japanese academia has never let up with individuals like Yoshida Yutaka and Fujiwara Akira producing what is acknowledged in English-language writing (see Fogel’s “The Nanking Massacre in History and Historiography”) as the best research in the world on issues like the Nanking Massacre.
In the introduction of her “War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2005″ (from Harvard University Press) F. Seraphim calls the idea that Japan’s imperial violence has been a taboo in the postwar period “a myth” and discusses in great detail the various social movements (and media outlets like the Asahi, which I understand partners with the NYT on the Japanese edition of the Herald Tribune) have dealt consistently and openly with atrocities and war crimes.
Philip Seaton’s “Japan’s Contested War Memories” outlines the prolific and serious debates on war issues that have taken place in Japan since the 1950s (more intensely since the 1990s). He asserts that honest debate about Japan’s war crimes and legacies is far more prolific than are domestic debates about bombing, Vietnam, etc. in the United States. In his article in Social Science Japan Journal ‘Reporting the 2001 textbook and Yasukuni Shrine controversies: Japanese war memory and commemoration in the British media’ he argues that the British media has consistently misrepresented Japanese war memory, playing down successes and open debate to make sensationalist points.
Concerning the N-H-K Comfort Women documentary, the right wing did not result in it being neutered. It was aired with critical perspectives intact. The additions were interviews with Hata Ikuhiko who argues that there is inadequate evidence that the Japanese army participated in the mass kidnapping of women. This is also the assertion of a recent book by a Korean American scholar – C. Sarah Soh’s “The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan” (published by University of Chicago) who interviewed 90 former Comfort Women and, while condemning the abuses of the system, argues in similar terms to those that Hata added to the N-H-K documentary that the stories consistently refer to participation by ordinary Koreans (in the role of brokers and profiteers) at all levels and that the system of buying farm women and keeping women by force continued, eventually serving South Korean and American troops under conditions of violence not dissimilar to those that prevailed during the Japanese empire. Similar assertions are made in Bob Wakabayashi’s article – “Comfort Women: Beyond Litigious Feminism” in Monumenta Nipponica – one of the leading academic journals in Japanese studies. Neither Soh, nor Hata, nor Wakabayashi seeks in any way to deny war crimes, they want to broaden discussions of responsibility and consideration of documentary and testimonial evidence.
There is a great deal of leading writing in English that strongly refutes the idea that pre-1945 history is not freely discussed in Japan.
On the textbook issue – there is good reason to criticise the “New History Textbook” – used by fewer than 1% of students. This book is not, however, representative of Japanese education. For more details on the various points of view available, which includes positive assessments of recent directions in Japanese education, see Saaler, Sven
“Politics, Memory and Public Opinion – The History Textbook Controversy and Japanese Society” and Yoshiko Nozaki’s “War memory, nationalism, and education in postwar Japan, 1945-2007″.