Into the realm of the symbolic

While I obviously recognize that Asahi and Yomiuri approach public affairs from drastically different perspectives, I have never thought that they were living in different worlds.

Until today.

In Asahi, prominently featured on the front page, was an article on a Japanese Communist Party report suggesting that a special Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces (JGSDF) unit conducted surveillance against citizens’ groups and political parties opposed to the dispatch of JSDF troops to Iraq. On the editorial page, where normally there are two editorials, Asahi devoted the entire space to this report, and there were two more articles on the subject in the Society section.

In Yomiuri, there was a single, tiny article buried on p. 33.

It seems that both can’t be right. Either this incident is of tremendous importance, and Yomiuri is playing it down to protect the government, or it is of little significance, and Asahi is exaggerating it to attack the government.

As the Japan Times reports, the JCP received two documents, including one entitled “Activities of Domestic Forces Opposing the Dispatch of Self-Defense Forces to Iraq.” Asked about the documents, Defense Minister Kyuma prevaricated, admitting that the GSDF conducted the alleged surveys but questioning the authenticity of the documents possessed by the JCP.

The significance of this program seems unclear, but to Asahi, there is little doubt that the documents are authentic — and that the revelations are pregnant with significance, especially because the JCP’s report suggests that the program also monitored opponents of other government policies, and all opposition parties. The conclusion of the editorial is worth citing in full:

Shaking civilian control

The Self-Defense Forces are an organization that protects the nation, but it is because it is a democratic country with freedom of speech and press that it is truly deserving of protection. It is deplorable that this basic precept is not heard.

The Defense Ministry, regarding this intelligence gathering, has stated the position that this work was to protect JSDF personnel and their families from the Iraq dispatch opposition movement. However, this is not an acceptable reason.

The historical lesson that the armed forces can easily be converted to an institution of public order directed internally must not be forgotten. In the prewar period, the Kempeitai, police within the army, before long spied on the people and became an organization that suppressed liberty.

We certainly do not think that what happened before the war is the same as today, but we must pay very close attention. If one thinks about the present constitution revision draft published by the governing LDP, whereupon the Self-Defense Forces are called an “army,” we must be all the more careful.

At this time, only one part of the whole of these activities has become public. Regarding these activities, the government should make a detailed disclosure.

Moriya Takemasa, vice-minister of defense, said, “Since it has been decided to reveal our intentions, comment is not appropriate.” It is extremely difficult to understand this defiance. It is the height of irresponsibility.

The fact of the matter is that with the government’s murky actions, we cannot have faith in civilian control. It is also the Diet’s role to ask questions.

To the lingering remnants of the Japanese left, and others besides, the symbolism of these reports of the government’s monitoring of opposition parties, religious groups, and citizens’ groups opposed to Japanese participation is unmistakable, harking back not only to the prewar period, but also the concerns of the immediate postwar, when many Japanese citizens feared that the alliance with the US would undermine Japanese democracy and lead to Japan being forced into a war against its will, with US forces being called in to suppress domestic unrest (under the terms of the 1951 security agreement). While the US had no hand in this affair, it seems that one cannot discuss Japan’s actions on the Iraq dispatch without some reference to the alliance (which Asahi, surprisingly, does not do). But this action by the government must surely resemble the worst nightmares of many Japanese: their government, in the course of seemingly doing Washington’s bidding (or more specifically, the bidding of Bush the warmonger), undermining democracy at home.

Of course, in the scheme of things, the practical impact of the GSDF program was (is?) undoubtedly small. There is not the slightest indication that the GSDF interfered with or tried to prevent organizations from opposing government policy. But then the debate surrounding Japan’s postwar identity is not grounded solely in reason and matters of practicality. This affair could potentially have sentimental resonance among citizens already skeptical about the government’s plans to revise the constitution and otherwise abandon the postwar regime, with citizens coming to see something more sinister in Abe’s appeals.

Asahi is right to demand vigilance on the part of the Japanese people — and questioning from the Diet. At the very least, this is yet another example of the incompetence of LDP government, even if it is not indicative of something rotten in the Empire of Japan, as Asahi would like to believe.

So whose world is closer to reality? Asahi‘s, which sees this as a serious concern for Japanese democracy? Or Yomiuri‘s, which sees this as a trifle barely worth mentioning? And if Asahi is right, could this be the final straw that breaks the Abe Cabinet’s back?

One thought on “Into the realm of the symbolic

  1. It\’s a tough question you pose. The JCP is a bit outlandish at times, but there is often truth behind their words. Undoubtedly, if true, the GSDF were watching Leftists, thus the JCP has a stake in understanding what was happening.The truth is somewhere in between. I do not doubt that there was an element of the GSDF\’s Intelligence Division collecting information (first-hand or second-hand) on Leftists it considered of concern throughout the GSDF\’s history. That it might be business as usual puts me closer to the Yomiuri\’s \’so-what/pinch of salt\’ stance.


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