In 2010, Japan was ranked #11 in Reporters Without Borders’ global Press Freedom Index. By February 2015, that number had plummeted to #61 - and next year it will likely fall further.
Since coming to power in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party have embarked upon a war of attrition against press freedoms in Japan.
Assaults have included: embedding neo-nationalists in key positions at state broadcaster, NHK; issuing veiled threats to TV networks that coverage critical of the government might cost them their broadcast licenses; and accusing a German journalist - who’d written about PM Abe’s historical revisionism - of accepting a bribe from China.
This week, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression, was scheduled to visit Tokyo - a trip which would have brought international attention to the Japanese government’s suppression of the media. But at the last moment, Japanese government officials canceled his trip claiming they were too busy to meet him.
The LDP is particularly keen to avoid scrutiny of the State Secrets Law which it rushed through parliament in late 2013.
The law gives the Japanese government free rein to classify as a state secret any information related to security and diplomacy - with zero independent oversight. Information can be kept classified for an indefinite period, including reports related to the triple meltdowns at Fukushima’s nuclear power plant.
Under the new law, government whistleblowers can be jailed for 10 years while members of the media publishing leaked information face 5 years imprisonment; foreign journalists - like me - will probably be deported.
Realizing the future of their free press was at stake, the Japanese public - approximately 80% of whom oppose the act - organized some of the largest demonstrations seen here in decades.
Newspaper editors, journalists, publishers and lawyers slammed the law as an attack on Japan’s constitutionally-protected freedom of the press. Reporters Without Borders said: “[P]arliament is making investigative journalism illegal, and is trampling on the fundamental principles of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and ‘public interest’.”
Opposition to the State Secrets Act was unanimous - with one exception: the US.
Shortly after the act was passed,US Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, voiced Washington’s approval:
We support the evolution of Japan's security policies, as they create a new national security strategy, establish a National Security Council, and take steps to protect national security secrets.
For many years, Washington’s Japan-handlers have pressed Tokyo to introduce repressive legislation to protect secrets concerning the US-Japan security alliance. Most notably Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye include these laws on their wish-list in the 2012 CSIS report The US-Japan Alliance.
Such US government interference in Japanese domestic politics is nothing new; the CIA funneled money to the LDP throughout the 1950s and ’60s to ensure a subservient ally in the region. In recent years, this pressure has increased with Washington repeatedly urging Japan to allow members of its Self-Defense Forces to join America’s endless wars in the Middle East.
Last month, Donald Rumsfeld - who once referred to Japan’s SDF as “boy-scouts” - was given one of Japan’s highest honors, the Order of the Rising Sun. Armitage and Nye are recipients of the same award.
In PM Abe’s government, the Pentagon has found a sympathetic ear for the remilitarization of Japan. Motivated by revisionist nostalgia for Japan’s pre-1945 Empire and a misguided hope that war munitions might save the nation’s stagnant industrial sector, this year the LDP moved to re-interpret the nation’s peace constitution - the key obstacle to the remilitarization of Japan.
In the summer, the government rammed through parliament itsbills on collective self-defense - popularly known as the War Bills.
Worded purposefully vague, the laws allow Japan to send military forces to fight overseas for the first time since World War Two. These troops will fight alongside - or more likely under the command of - the US.
The US reacted to the passage of the bills withenthusiastic support. The State Department said:
We welcome Japan’s ongoing efforts to strengthen the alliance and play a more active role in regional and international security activities, as reflected in Japan’s new security legislation.
Once again, US support was at odds with popular sentiment in Japan. Many people here likened the rushed passage of the bill as a coup d’etat. Punch-ups between lawmakers broke out in the parliamentary chamber. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets - including, for the first time in a generation, many university students.
State broadcaster NHK gave scant coverage to these demonstrations - nor did it report aboutthe man who set himself ablaze atop a Tokyo bridge to protest the war bills.
In Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa, heckles of “Warmonger” and “Go home!” met PM Abe when he gave a speech in June to commemorate the anniversary of the end of World War Two fighting there. Again, NHK ignored the news - as it does other ongoing human rights violations on the island.
Given their experiences of World War Two, Okinawans are painfully aware of the dangers posed by PM Abe’s resurgent militarism. More than a quarter of the island’s population died in the spring of 1945 - sacrificed by Tokyo to delay a US invasion of the mainland. Between 1945 and 1972, the island was a US military colony and the storehouse of perhaps the planet’s largest concentration of weapons of mass destruction - approximately 1200 nuclear warheads, thousands of tons of nerve gas and Agent Orange.
Today, Okinawans are still dealing with the consequences of the 27-year US occupation - dioxin contamination, underdeveloped civilian infrastructure and US bases which continue to take up almost 20% of the island, hobbling economic growth.
Local residents must also contend with close ties between Japanese neo-nationalist groups and the US Marine Corps who leak surveillance videos to extremist websites in order to discredit the island’s peace movement.
Fortunately for Okinawans, their two daily newspapers - Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Times - work fearlessly to hold the US and Japan to account for their abuses on the island.
This has put both newspapers in the LDP’s line of fire.
On June 25, two days after PM Abe’s humiliation at the Battle of Okinawa ceremony, the LDP held a study group in Tokyo to discuss the nation’s media. At the meeting, Naoki Hyakuta - a former NHK governor appointed by the LDP - gave a speech calling for the destruction of Okinawa’s two dailies. Another speaker suggested the Japanese government should pressure advertisers to cut their funding to the newspapers.
Public outrage at these comments was so great that PM Abe was forced to dismiss the study group’s organizer from his position - but not from the LDP.
In the coming years, as Japan prepares to send troops to fight in American wars, attacks on press freedoms in Japan are sure to worsen. And Washington will likely encourage the Japanese government in these assaults - just as it dismantles First Amendment rights at home.
Jon Mitchell is a British journalist based in Japan. In 2015, he received the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan's Freedom of the Press lifetime achievement award for his investigations into human rights violations on Okinawa. He is an Asia-Pacific Journal associate and visiting researcher at the International Peace Research Institute of Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo.