Media : Violence Chilling Freedom of Speech in Japan : Critics say self-censorship becomes more common after murders, bombings and other scattered attacks.


An Asahi newspaper reporter shot to death, another seriously wounded. The Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" stabbed to death. The mayor of Nagasaki shot and seriously wounded after he declared the late emperor "partly responsible" for World War II. The director of a movie critical of gangsters slashed in the face and neck.

While such incidents may sound unremarkable elsewhere in a world grown accustomed to violence, collectively they reflect a relatively new phenomenon in postwar Japan.

Along with a host of similar attacks and threats of violence in the last few years, the incidents have stirred concern that those who publicly express controversial or provocative views here do so increasingly at their own risk. And at least some experts contend that the rising danger has caused a society of individuals already notoriously reluctant to express their views to become even less outspoken.

"Incidents of physical force against freedom of speech have been rising. This is a danger . . . that threats will increase," said Tetsuzo Hori, city editor of Asahi.

Hori said he was confident that post-World War II Japanese society had nurtured the strength to resist such threats. But non-journalist experts are not so sure.

Mass media legitimately fear retaliation from such groups as Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, the Kofuku no Kagaku (Institute for Research in Human Happiness) religious sect, gangs and rightist organizations if they report critically on them, said Yasuhiro Okudaira, an International Christian University professor.

And, in Okudaira's eyes, "the media quickly start self-restraint when protests occur. They refuse to take risks," he said.

"Legally, there is no suppression of freedom of speech, unlike the pre-1945 days. . . . But gradually, in social customs, freedom of speech is declining. People don't want to talk about topics they feel would cause problems. A mood of self-restraint is becoming stronger," said Keiichi Katsura, a professor at Tokyo University's Social Information Research Center.

That "mood" strengthened after the Asahi reporter was killed in 1987, and "I don't see any signs that the mass media is strongly fighting (it)," he said.

Among incidents observers here cite as worrisome:

* A prominent TV star and 11 of his friends picked a fistfight with the editors of a magazine that had run a series of stories and photographs about his personal life. After a suspended court sentence for inflicting bodily injury and a brief suspension from TV, the performer resumed his appearances.

* An assailant tried to shoot the kingpin of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party because he advocates establishing diplomatic relations with Communist North Korea.

* There has been a series of bomb attacks on the ruling party headquarters to protest Emperor Akihito's plans to visit China beginning Oct. 23.

* The Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) received 140,000 protest calls after it aired criticism of the Unification Church.

* There were street demonstrations and attacks against the offices of a magazine that published articles critical of the Human Happiness sect, as well as thousands of faxed protests.

Most disturbing to some observers is the fact that each of the incidents has been treated as an isolated occurrence, while they see a dangerous pattern of growing and often violent intolerance for those who publicly express opposing views. Response to these attacks has been "very weak," Okudaira said.

Far from banding together to combat violent threats, media organizations recently have started campaigns of criticism against one another's editorial postures, Katsura noted.

And even now, one prominent self-proclaimed "nationalist" is openly threatening new trouble. Shusuke Nomura, who spent 18 years in jail for torching a politician's home and staging a siege in the headquarters of a leading business organization, charged in an interview that Asahi's overall editorial policy is "un-Japanese" and said he "could not forgive" a cartoon in a weekly magazine published by the newspaper that attacked his supporters as "vermin."

Nomura said he intends to attack Asahi and, when pressed whether his methods would be violent, responded, "I don't know." He hopes, he added, to deprive the newspaper of between 200,000 and 300,000 subscribers, and he said he would also appeal to 50 or 60 companies to stop placing ads in the newspaper.

Asahi's Hori said he was unconcerned by Nomura's threats. But the newspaper is worried about the cloud of violence that looms over it. Since the 1987 raid by a gunman on its bureau in Kobe, three other attacks in which bullets were fired or a bomb planted have occurred in Tokyo, Nagoya and Shizuoka, he said.

In each case, a group unknown to police but claiming responsibility issued statements denouncing Asahi's "ideology." No one has been arrested.

Asahi has instituted a nationwide system of precautions, including guards for executives. But the newspaper "never issued any instructions to exercise caution in editorial policy, editorial campaigns or statements (by individual Asahi employees)," Hori said.

"Self-restraint" in covering such organizations as the Soka Gakkai (Value Creating Society), a Buddhist laymen's group, and such issues as discrimination against descendants of feudal-era outcasts who engaged in such allegedly "filthy" jobs as butcher and leather tanner are, if anything, growing stronger, Katsura said.

"Rather than taking up subjects that are controversial, the media just avoid them for the sake of peace at any price," he charged.

"Instead of using the right of freedom of speech, the media wind up creating taboos. For example, only one stream of opinion gets reported on such issues as the (late) emperor's responsibility for (World War II) or (Emperor Akihito's) visit to China. More and more, it becomes . . . difficult to take up minority opinions. If something really different is taken up, newspapers fear their circulations will drop; TV networks fear sponsors will stop advertising.

"The bottleneck is commercialism," which also "breeds a forgiveness of violence," Katsura said.

Yuichi Kusaka, a TV Asahi producer in charge of a long-running monthly debate show, insists that Japanese are capable of dealing with controversy. He said his show has avoided harassment or violence by insisting that both sides be represented on its panels, however sensitive the topic. In February, 1990, the show even focused on "rightists and violence against freedom of speech," making it a point to invite rightists as panelists.

"I don't think Japanese are so weak that they respond to criticism with violence. But Japanese don't have the experience of hearing frank opinions. Nor are Japanese likely to contradict another person's opinion," Kusaka said.

Nonetheless, Kusaka said that worries of harassment are a constant problem. He said he and the TV station have received critical, and even threatening, phone calls. And when panelists are invited to appear on the show, they are told "to take responsibility for your own statements. . . . If someone criticizes the imperial family, the TV station will be attacked. We want the panelists to handle the repercussions of their own statements."

Added Kusaka: "Some people refuse to appear on the show because they fear harassment."

Threats of violence or harassment loom even larger against a background of social constraint, experts say.

"At home and in school and after a person enters society, Japanese are taught 'don't say or do things that are different, don't stand out.' We are not taught to express our own opinions," Katsura said. Asahi's Hori also expressed concern that too many important government decisions are being made without serious public debate.

"Official freedom of speech is well developed. But socially, Japanese don't have freedom of speech," said Okudaira of International Christian University. "Freedom of speech hasn't filtered down to the roots of society.

"From the Tokugawa Era, Japanese society has been organized on the lines of a village in which it is thought that any different kind of person must be assimilated into a single society," he said. News organizations "are not willing to fight the government to say what should be said. This kind of self-restraint is part of their essence.

"The stronger the wind blows, the more likely the mass media will bend," Okudaira said.

Nomura agreed. He condemned Japan's media for continually siding with "the flow of the times" from the days of World War II onward and for ignoring the opinions of the minority, including "nationalists" like himself.

"In Japan, freedom of speech doesn't exist. Only freedom to talk exists," he said. "You can speak out, but the Establishment suppresses the dissemination of what is spoken. Journalism should have a critical spirit against those in power."

Asahi's Hori accepts that the press should be more outspoken in defense of freedom of speech.

"Toward threats that may occur in the future, we, the mass media, must sound the alarm to citizens, our readers, more than we have until now. But I have faith that Japanese society has matured to the point where there is no danger of it slipping back into a society without freedom of speech," he said.

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