- Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan ed. by Jeff Kingston
Donald Trump loves to pound away at the press, as he has amply demonstrated by tweet-storming his contempt for the "fake news" media. But when it comes to actually curbing press freedoms, Trump is no match for Abe Shinzō. Neither the U.S. president nor his supporters in Congress have dared, at least to date, to suggest laying a finger on the First Amendment or [End Page 134] to stop the mainstream media from lacerating Trump with one unflattering scoop after another. The Japanese prime minister is the real infighter. He has acted, far more pointedly, to cow Japan's press and quash the nuisance it presents to his ambitious political agenda.
Abe's war on the media is the subject of this timely and engrossing book, and the dangers it poses for Japan's democracy animate many of its 21 essays. Authors assert that since taking office for a second time in 2012 (after his first term ended in 2007), Abe and his political allies have been busy: they've proposed constitutional limits on free speech, leveraged the nation's broadcast code to throw TV news units off balance, toughened state secrecy laws to penalize journalists, and helped sideline critical voices. While Abe has worked coercive charm on financially pressed newspaper moguls, simpatico right-wing bloggers have menaced reporters and scholars alike.
Harrying the press, as Jeff Kingston points out, isn't "unprecedented, or indeed unique to Japan" (p. 2). Yet various contributors make the case that Abe has audaciously tightened the screws. And that is precisely why Japan's example is important for the rest of us to consider. With liberal democracies under siege across the planet, and the currency of "alternative facts" on a roll, the erosion of a free press carries risks for all. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder pithily observes in his 2017 book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: "To abandon facts is to abandon freedom."1
The Abe that Kingston and his authors portray fits the zeitgeist to a tee. Scion of a heavyweight political family, Abe finessed his rise on promises of "normalizing" Japan, which means ditching a post–World War II system that critics argue locks Japan into an uneasy dependency on the United States as its geopolitical go-between and protector. It also means seeking a freer hand in military affairs by dumping the antiwar provisions in Article 9 of the constitution U.S. occupiers imposed on Japan in 1946. And under Abe's stewardship, it has meant a stepped-up campaign to whitewash the country's record of wartime atrocities in favor of make-believe versions of history.
It is worth noting, as Kingston and others do, that most Japanese citizens shy away from supporting Abe's play on the constitution and, by extension, his view that it contains Western values incompatible with Japan's traditional identity. Thus, at its core, as a number of authors argue, Abe's media assault is really part of a broader culture war pitting liberal democratic values against an illiberal agenda. To win out, Senshu University professor of media law and journalism Kenta Yamada contends, "Abe's government is trying to prioritize the national interest over individual freedom and rights, a [End Page 135] revanchist agenda out of synch with twenty-first century democratic values and norms in Japan. Suppressing and intimidating the press is a means to stifle the necessary debate and scrutiny [Abe's] agenda deserves" (p. 130).
Right-tilting news media have been only too happy to oblige. In 1990s Japan, such players "started to escalate the rhetoric … in attacking what they saw as biased, left-leaning media," writes Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano (p. 34). Their campaign, says Nakano, rallied conservative intellectuals, pundits, and rising neonationalist politicians, including Abe Shinzō, to protest purported liberal bias and an anti-Japanese, self-hating take on modern history. Riding such ideas to his second term two decades later, Abe...