Tue, Jan 16, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Japan rightists threaten free speech

AP , TOKYO

When Japanese ruling party lawmaker Koichi Kato criticized a prime minister's trip to a Tokyo war shrine, retribution from Japan's right wing was swift: An extremist set his house on fire and tried to commit ritual suicide.

It was the most dramatic in a string of attacks and threats over the past year that have academics, journalists and lawmakers worried that Japan's freedom of expression is under assault by a resurgent nationalist fringe.

"Speech and journalism in this country are facing an extremely difficult situation," Masato Kitamura, chairman of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, told the group's annual meeting recently.

Freedom of expression and information has long faced limits in Japan. The government regularly holds back facts considered public information elsewhere, such as the dates of upcoming executions, while cultural concepts of social harmony and homogeneity discourage gadflies and whistle-blowers.

The left and liberal-leaning journalists have long suffered harassment at the hands of right-wing thugs in postwar Japan. But lately intimidation has surged.

It's "a distorted kind of nationalism which does not tolerate argument," said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University.

"Internet rightists" have set up Web sites to attack "anti-Japan" journalists. Outspoken independent lawmaker Makiko Tanaka last year received a string of threatening phone calls for her criticism of the ruling party. A leading newspaper reported late Emperor Hirohito opposed honoring war criminals at a Tokyo shrine -- and a firebomb was thrown at the paper's entrance.

A more assertive extremist fringe is believed behind the trend.

The country's estimated 10,000 ultra-rightists have become increasingly violent in recent years, the National Police Agency said in its annual report last year.

At the same time, national pride is in fashion again. The government has passed a law requiring patriotic education, pushed for a revision of the pacifist Constitution and upgraded the status of the Defense Agency.

The government is also feeling freer about promoting its conservative agenda through the media.

In October, Communications Minister Yoshihide Suga took the unusual step of ordering public broadcaster NHK to increase its coverage of North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals through its international shortwave radio service. NHK, however, insists that it has not changed its editorial policy to please the government.

Growing restrictions on the media in Japan have engendered concern overseas.

The Worldwide Press Freedom Index for last year released by Reporters Without Borders showed Japan plunging to 51st place in the 168-nation survey from 37th the previous year. The study cited "rising nationalism and the system of exclusive press clubs" -- institutionalized insider relationships between reporters and government offices as well as the powerful -- as threats to democracy.

While the rash of right-wing intimidation has not caused any deaths, fear of violence and intimidation has silenced many liberal-leaning journalists, lawmakers and academics, Kato said.

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