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Shinzo Abe Pressures Public Broadcaster
[Opinion] Prime minister will order NHK to 'pay attention' to the North Korean Abductions issue
Christopher Salzberg (gyaku)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-28 16:29 (KST)   
In a move that immediately sparked protests, Japan's new prime minister Abe Shinzo, less than a month after taking office, has declared that his government will direct "special orders" to the influential public broadcaster NHK demanding that it "pay attention" to the North Korea abductions issue. [1,2]

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Associated Press reports that "the Ministry of Internal Affairs will ask a regulatory council to approve ordering state-owned Japan Broadcasting Corp., or NHK, to boost coverage of abductions in its overseas shortwave radio broadcasts," in order to, among other things, "raise international awareness of the abductees' plight," according to ministry official Osumi Yutaka. Abe told reporters that the government must take "appropriate action as we think about what can be done for the sake of the victims who are waiting in North Korea for us to rescue them." In response, NHK stated that it already gives enough attention to the abductions issue and that it aimed to continue to do so under "independent editorship." [2]

The move met with widespread hostility, drawing criticism even from within Abe's own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Internal Affairs Minister Katayama Toranosuke, who has himself previously issued orders to NHK, drew a distinction, noting that his orders had been "in general and abstract terms," and that he had "to a large extent left it to NHK's independent judgment" to make changes. [3] Indeed, the ministry has in the past restricted its orders to requests for increased public-interest programs related to government policies and views. [1] Katayama argued that "it's sufficient for the government to convey its position in other ways," and wondered if directly interfering in NHK's affairs will be "a good thing and if it will be acceptable [to the public]." [3] The leader of the main opposition Democratic Party Ozawa Ichiro was less diplomatic, stating that he "question[s] the government using its authority to unilaterally push national policy." [2] Hattori Takaaki, a professor of broadcasting systems at Rikkyo University, attacked the move as going "against the principles of Article 1 of the Broadcast Law, which stipulates political neutrality and freedom of expression." [1]

The abductions issue centers on a series of kidnappings of Japanese civilians by North Korean agents in the period between 1977 and 1983, involving (according to Japan) 16 abductees and (according to North Korea) eight deaths.

Abe's predecessor, Koizumi Junichiro, had managed in 2002 to extract an oral apology from Korean leader Kim Jong Il and to secure temporary release of five of the victims, who returned to Japan on Oct. 15 of the same year. Yet the Japanese government, before the five had even set foot on Japanese soil, made a decision to renege on its promise, refusing to return the abductees and effectively putting an end to chances for a possible reconciliation. Relations between the two countries have since considerably worsened, as Japan -- under pressure from groups representing the victims' families, championed by Abe and his supporters -- has cynically used the threat of sanctions and freezing of humanitarian aid to precipitate "regime change," [4] much to the approval of Japan's U.S. allies. [5]

The abduction tragedy has been a boon for Abe, whose "hardline" stance against Pyongyang, repeatedly praised by the Japanese media, has elevated a little-known politician with a lackluster career to the status of national hero. Much of this "meteoric rise" -- the term used by Mainichi Shimbun, a faithful supporter [6] -- is thanks to a crassly opportunistic strategy of capitalizing on small-scale, politically-convenient misery to cover up for massive state and corporate misdeeds.

As McNeill observes: "Day after day for five years, every tiny development in the abduction drama has been obsessively played out here in the media," at the expense of "more deadly issues affecting Japan that have yet to receive anywhere near the same lavish media attention." Domestically, such issues include, for example, the link between smoking and cancer, covered roughly 20 times less than the story of Yokota Megumi -- the most famous of the abductee cases -- alone. While killing 100,000 people annually in Japan, the cancer connection, were it to be extensively covered, would certainly cut into the profits of Japan Tobacco, the third largest tobacco manufacturer in the world, who understandably prefers these victims not be granted "appropriate action." [7]

At an international level, the hypocrisy is significantly more acute. The Japanese government's continued refusal to address its war crimes stands in stark contrast to its international reputation as a "peace-loving nation" -- a reputation due in no small part to its pacifist constitution, the preamble of which Abe refers to as "degrading." [8] In contrast to the Japanese abductees, who number at most 80 in total, over one million Koreans were forcefully taken to Japan to service the military industry, mainly working in mines under miserable conditions. Former slaves, moreover, include not only Koreans, but also Chinese, Filipino, Taiwanese, Thai, Australian, British, and Dutch, to name a few. As Christopher Reed writes:

"A major argument of those seeking redress from a shamefully reluctant Japan, is that while it has made numerous 'apologies' of varying sincerity, none amounts to proper atonement. And atonement includes financial compensation of which, it is estimated, Japan has paid one percent of Germany's disbursements." [9]

Arguments that critics are "hung up" on history and should "move on" [10] -- wake up, in other words, and welcome the "brave new Japan" of Abe Shinzo [11] -- fail to acknowledge, or simply willfully ignore, the pre-war and post-war inter-generational continuity that lines the pockets of leading LDP politicians and increasingly subverts the democratic process.

Abe's admiration of his "statesman" grandfather Kishi Nobusuke, a class-A war criminal directly involved in the forcible abduction of thousands of Chinese workers to Japan in the midst of the war, [12] stands as one striking example of this legacy; Foreign Minister Aso Taro's steadfast refusal to acknowledge (let alone pay compensation for) the crimes of his family business, Aso Group (formerly Aso Mining Co.), a company that profited handsomely from the forced labor of 12,000 Koreans "compelled to work under grotesque conditions," [9] is another.

And there are many more. According to William Underwood, a researcher investigating Japan's wartime forced labour, most of the profits from these wartime exploits are "probably still sitting in Japan's Postal Savings accounts ... including unpaid money for the much larger contingent of Asian slave workers forcibly taken to Japan ... worth today about $2 billion." [13]

Considering this record, it is not surprising that leading members of the LDP wish to focus attention away from less savory aspects of Japan's wartime past. Current pressure on NHK to "pay attention" to Japanese victims recalls equally direct -- if less overt -- attempts five years earlier by Abe and his associate Nakagawa Shoichi, both prominent members of the "Association to Consider the Future Path for Japan and History Education," to censor the contents of a film about Korean wartime sex-slaves ("comfort women").

As Gavan McCormack recounts, the film, scheduled to be broadcast in January 2001 and featuring proceedings of a civil tribunal convened in Tokyo one month earlier, was subjected to a series of last-minute changes "in a state of semi-siege, as rightists mobilized and sound trucks circled the NHK building blaring hostile messages and employees were jostled and abused as they entered or left the premises." [14] Days before the film was to go on air, Abe and Nakagawa met with senior executives of NHK, demanding major alterations that included insertion of "an interview with Hata Ikuhiko, a nationalist historian who denied that there had ever been a system of sexual slavery, and some gratuitously irrelevant footage of U.S. bombers in action over Vietnam." Henry Laurence writes that the tone of the film "changed from one basically sympathetic to the goals of Tribunal to one that was broadly negative and much closer in line to the government policy on the reparations issue." [15] Despite having openly violated both the Japanese Constitution and the Broadcast Law, when confronted and forced to admit his meddling, Abe was remarkably frank, declaring: "I found out that the contents were clearly biased and told [NHK] that it should be broadcast from a fair and neutral viewpoint, as it is expected to." [16] Needless to say, the media did not pursue the issue, leaving Abe to go on with his career, unscathed.

NHK censorship is unfortunately symptomatic of a transformation ongoing in Japanese society that threatens to completely sanitize or otherwise eliminate the few remaining public forums available for open and critical discussion. Only two months ago, one such forum, an online journal run by the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), was forced to issue an apology after featuring a number of pieces critical of government policies. Particularly fiercely targeted was an article by the journal's editor Tamamoto Masaru, described in attacks as "a radical left scholar," expressing concern for Japan's new "hawkish nationalism." As McNeill noted at the time:

"Many foreign academics and journalists found the JIIA articles, which began to appear in April 2006, to be thoughtful, at times independent or even critical attempts to engage Japan's undigested history, growing diplomatic assertiveness and increasingly troubled relations with China, Korea and much of East Asia. They were widely read, quoted, and discussed."

The articles received a somewhat less positive response from correspondent Komori Yoshihisa of the nationalist Sankei Shimbun, who decried the use of public money to attack "the thinking of the government and ruling camp." A public relations onslaught followed, prompting JIIA to shut the site, only to later re-open with all copies of the texts removed. [17]

Komori's attacks represent the diplomatic front for a violent undercurrent in modern Japanese politics. Around the same time as the JIIA incident, an official from an ultra-right wing organization set fire to the countryside home of Kato Koichi, an LDP member who had openly voiced criticisms of Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni shrine.

Numerous prominent public figures have in recent years faced similar retaliation for publicly opposing a xenophobic and historically myopic vision, currently gaining popularity thanks to generous corporate backing, of Japan as moving "toward a beautiful nation." As Steven Clemens explains, promoted by Abe and enforced by "an increasingly militant group of extreme right-wing activists," supporters of this vision "yearn for a return to 1930s-style militarism, emperor-worship and 'thought control'." Having found "mutualism in the media," this group has "begun to move into more mainstream circles -- and to attack those who don't see things their way," notably on questions of "Japan's national identity, war responsibility [and its] imperial system."

At least as reprehensible as any one of the North Korean kidnappings, incidents of intimidation are given implicit backing by leading politicians, who fail to publicly denounce them and even occasionally voice support. When Deputy Foreign Minister Tanaka Hitoshi discovered a time bomb in his home in 2003, allegedly for being soft on North Korea, Tokyo mayor Ishihara Shintaro famously declared that Tanaka "had it coming." [18] An editorial in The Hankyoreh noted the double-standard:

"It is a bad omen when the same politicians who have taken the lead in defining North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens as 'state terror,' and have used the issue to promote a hardline stance towards Pyongyang, become mere onlookers when the Japanese right commits political terrorism." [19]

Pressure on NHK to fall in line with the narrow views of the LDP leadership -- in other words, adopt this double-standard -- is part of a larger strategy to cover-up complicity in a historical legacy of corruption and war crimes. In its eagerness to target an easy scapegoat in the form of a bankrupt and dysfunctional dictatorship, the Abe government has descended to a level of moral hypocrisy roughly on par with the vision of "pride" trumpeted and enforced by its yakuza and ultra-nationalist supporters. If this is an indication of the "freedom of expression" that must be honored "at all times," terms given generous lip service in defense of the new policy [3], then one might reasonably expect more of the same tactics to come.

[1] "State pushes abductions show on NHK," Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 14, 2006.

[2] "Japan to order more public media coverage of North Korea abductees," International Herald Tribune, Oct. 24, 2006.

[3] "Gov't to order NHK to air abductions, triggers press freedom concern," Kyodo News, Oct. 24, 2006.

[4] Wada Haruki, "Recovering a Lost Opportunity: Japan-North Korea Negotiations in the Wake of the Iraqi War," Sekai (translated by Mark Caprio for Japan Focus), May 3, 2003.

[5] Jim Lobe, "U.S. Neo-Conservatives Call for Japanese Nukes, Regime Change in North Korea," Japan Focus, Oct. 19, 2006.

[6] "Abe was born to become a prime minister," Mainichi Daily News, Sept. 21, 2006.

[7] "Japan media focus blurred on big issues," The Japan Times, Aug. 8, 2006.

[8] "Mr. Abe's worrisome plan for Japan," Japan Times, Sept. 21, 2006.

[9] Christopher Reed, "Japan Howls About 70 North Korea Abductions, Not Sorry About its One Million Korean Slaves," Counterpunch, Feb. 2, 2006.

[10] Bruce Wallace and Mark Magnier, "Abe's Visits Signal Neighbors' Desire to Mend Fences," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 6, 2006.

[11] Anthony Faiola, "Japan's Abe, Poised to Lead, Offers Nation Vision of Pride," The Washington Post, Sept. 19, 2006.

[12] William Underwood, "The Japanese Court, Mitsubishi and Corporate Resistance to Chinese Forced Labor Redress," Japan Focus, Mar. 29, 2006.

[13] Christopher Reed, "Japan Nixes Payments to Wartime Slaves," Counterpunch, June 20, 2006.

[14] Gavan McCormack, "War and Japan's Memory Wars," ZNet, Jan. 29, 2005.

[15] Henry Laurence, "Censorship at NHK and PBS," Japan Policy Research Institute Critique 7(3), April 2005.

[16] "NHK censored TV show due to 'political pressure'," The Japan Times, Jan. 14, 2005.

[17] David McNeill, "The Struggle for the Japanese Soul: Komori Yoshihisa, Sankei Shimbun, and the JIIA controversy," ZNet, Sept. 6, 2006.

[18] Steven Clemens, "The Rise of Japan's Thought Police," Washington Post, Aug. 27, 2006.

[19] "Japan's difficult drive to be a 'beautiful country'," The Hankyoreh, Sept. 2, 2006.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Christopher Salzberg

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