[Marxism] Expect to Be Lied to in Japan

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 24 11:28:08 MDT 2012


Expect to Be Lied to in Japan
November 8, 2012
Ian Buruma

Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World
by John W. Dower
New Press, 324 pp., $26.95

Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima 
Nuclear Disaster
by David McNeill and Lucy Birmingham
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pp., $27.00


The great poet Matsuo Basho, traveling in the northeast of Japan in 
1689, was so overcome by the beauty of the island of Matsushima that he 
could only express his near speechlessness in what became one of his 
most famous haiku:

     Matsushima ah!
     A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
     Matsushima ah!

Matsushima, known since the seventeenth century as one of Japan’s “Three 
Great Views,” is actually an archipelago of more than 250 tiny islands 
sprouting fine pine trees, like elegant little rock gardens arranged 
pleasingly in a Pacific Ocean bay. Because these islands functioned as a 
barrier to the tsunami that hit the northeastern coast with such 
horrifying consequences on March 11, 2011, relatively little damage was 
done to this scenic spot. Just a few miles up or down the coast, 
however, entire towns and villages, with most of their inhabitants, were 
washed away into the sea. 2,800 people are still missing.

I decided to go on a little trip to Matsushima this summer because I had 
never seen this particular “Great View,” even though I had in fact been 
there once before, in 1975. Then, too, I set out from the harbor in a 
boat filled with fellow tourists—all from Japan. As we took a leisurely 
cruise into the bay, a charming guide gave us a running commentary on 
the islands we were supposed to be gazing at, their peculiar shapes, 
names, and histories. The problem was that no matter how keenly we 
craned our necks in the directions indicated by the guide, we could not 
see a thing; we were in the midst of a thick fog. But this did not stop 
the guide from pointing out the many beauties, or us from peering into 
the milky void.

It was a puzzling experience. My familiarity with Japan was still 
limited. I didn’t quite know how to interpret this charade. Why were we 
pretending to see something we couldn’t? What did the guide think she 
was doing? Was this an illustration of the famous dichotomy that 
guidebooks say is typical of the Japanese character, between honne and 
tatemae, private desires and the public façade, official reality and 
personal feelings? Or was it the rigidity of a system that could not be 
diverted once it was set in motion? Or was the tourists’ pretense just a 
polite way of showing respect to a guide doing her job?

I still don’t really know. But since then I have seen other instances of 
Japanese conforming in public to views of reality that they must have 
known perfectly well were false, to protect “public order,” or to “save 
face.” Japan is a country where the emperor is rarely seen naked.


One thing revived by the “3/11” earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear 
disaster is the culture of protest, which had been pretty much moribund 
since the great anti–Vietnam War and antipollution demonstrations of the 
1960s. In his new collection of essays, Ways of Forgetting, Ways of 
Remembering, John Dower describes these 1960s protests as a “radical 
anti-imperialist critique [added] to the discourse on peace and 
democracy.” There hasn’t been much of that in Japan of late.

But now, since the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, 
thousands of protesters gather in front of Prime Minister Noda 
Yoshihiko’s Tokyo residence every Friday demanding an end to nuclear 
power plants. Even larger gatherings of up to 200,000 people have been 
demonstrating in Tokyo’s central Yoyogi Park, as part of the “10 Million 
People’s Action to Say Goodbye to Nuclear Power Plants.” Eight million 
have already signed. This has had at least some cosmetic effect. First 
the government announced that nuclear energy would be phased out by 
2040. This has been softened since to the promise that this plan would 
at least be considered.

The atmosphere at the demos is not unlike that of last year’s Occupy 
Wall Street demonstrations in the US: passionate, peaceful, festive, and 
sprinkled with an element of nostalgia by the conspicious presence of 
veterans of the 1960s. One of the leading figures is the novelist and 
Nobel Prize laureate Oe Kenzaburo, aged seventy-seven.

Oe is keen to draw parallels between 3/11 and the past, though not with 
the protests in the 1960s, when petrochemical and mining companies were 
spewing their poison onto the land. Rather, he recalls 1945, when the 
Japanese became the first victims of atomic bombs. Oe sees modern 
Japanese history, and its nuclear disasters, through the “prism” of 
Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “To repeat the error by exhibiting, through the 
construction of nuclear reactors, the same disrespect for human life is 
the worst possible betrayal of the memory of Hiroshima’s victims.”1

Other Japanese have heard different echoes from the last world war. The 
ninety-four-year-old writer Ito Keiichi, for instance, was moved by the 
spirit of self-sacrifice he observed in the firefighters, soldiers, and 
nuclear plant workers who had tried, often at considerable personal 
risk, to contain the damage at the stricken nuclear reactors. They 
reminded him of the self-sacrificial sense of duty displayed by Japanese 
soldiers and civilians during the war. This is not a sentiment that many 
Chinese, who saw the Japanese military spirit at first hand, might 
readily share, but in Japan it still has a certain resonance. The 
authors of the slight but very useful book Strong in the Rain, David 
McNeill and Lucy Birmingham, report that Japanese TV commentators 
sometimes compared the heroes of Fukushima to kamikaze pilots.

I cannot imagine Oe’s eyes moistening at the thought of kamikaze pilots, 
but his focus on Hiroshima, like Ito’s sentiments about wartime Japanese 
sacrifices, might fit something John Dower identifies as a common trait 
in Japan, something he translates as “victim consciousness,” or higaisha 
ishiki. What is meant is the tendency to focus on the suffering of 
Japanese, especially at the hands of foreigners, while conveniently 
forgetting the suffering inflicted by Japanese on others.

It is certainly true, as Dower says, that most Japanese associate the 
war with Hiroshima, and not, say, with the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan 
Death March, or the brutal sacking of Manila. Yet Oe’s sentiments, and 
those of his fellow anti-nuclear protesters, cannot be reduced to 
“victim consciousness.” National self-pity is not at the core of their 
protest. Their point is, rather, that both Hiroshima and Fukushima were 
man-made disasters. And their rage is fueled by a long history of 
government deceit, of being consistently lied to, specifically about 
nuclear power; it has to do with being made to conform to official views 
of reality that have turned out to be patently false.

Doctoring reality for propaganda purposes is not only a Japanese 
practice, of course. News of the terrible consequences of the atom bomb 
attacks on Japan was deliberately withheld from the Japanese public by 
US military censors during the Allied occupation—even as they sought to 
teach the benighted natives the virtues of a free press. Casualty 
statistics were suppressed. Film shot by Japanese cameramen in Hiroshima 
and Nagasaki after the bombings was confiscated. Hiroshima, the famous 
account written by John Hersey for The New Yorker, had a huge impact in 
the US, but was banned in Japan. As Dower says: “In the localities 
themselves, suffering was compounded not merely by the unprecedented 
nature of the catastrophe…but also by the fact that public struggle with 
this traumatic experience was not permitted.”

But Dower also points out another consequence of the wartime destruction 
of Japan: an almost religious faith in science to get Japan back on its 
feet again, or even, just before the war was finally over, to allow it 
to retaliate. This included the misguided hope that Japan might have its 
own bomb. One of the most famous documents written by a Hiroshima 
survivor is Dr. Hachiya Michihiko’s Hiroshima Diary, which could only be 
published in the 1950s, after the occupation was over. Dr. Hachiya 
describes scenes in a hospital only days after the bombing. Horribly 
mangled and mutilated patients are dying of diseases that were barely 
understood. A rumor spreads that Japan has attacked California with the 
same kind of bomb that struck Hiroshima. There is jubilation in the ward.

What put paid to any celebration of nuclear power in Japan, however, was 
the American H-bomb test at Bikini Atoll in 1954. By a slice of ghastly 
irony, the only victims of this explosion in the Pacific were Japanese 
fishermen, whose boat had strayed too close. This inspired the first 
Godzilla movie, reflecting widespread Japanese fears of a nuclear 
apocalypse. And it was the beginning of the anti-nuclear movement. As 
Dower points out, the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs 
was not just supported by the left in Japan, but in its early stages by 
the conservative parties too.

It was also during the 1950s, however, that some Japanese conservative 
politicians began to push for nuclear energy. Oe singles out for 
particular opprobrium the right-wing nationalist and later prime 
minister Nakasone Yasuhiro and the conservative newspaper tycoon Shoriki 
Matsutaro. Shoriki is still known as the grand old man of postwar 
Japanese baseball and the “father of nuclear power.” He was not a 
prepossessing figure. Classified after the war as a “Class-A” war 
criminal, Shoriki was also blamed for massacres of Koreans in Tokyo when 
he was a police official in the 1920s. Strongly pro-American after the 
war, possibly working with the CIA, he was responsible for importing US 
nuclear technology to Japan. The first reactors were built in the 1960s 
by the General Electric Company. Before the 2011 earthquake, about 30 
percent of Japanese electricity was generated by nuclear energy.

This is not much compared to France, where the figure is closer to 70 
percent. But in the minds of Oe and other Japanese leftists, protest 
against Japanese nuclear policy is more than a matter of ecology. Given 
the political history of such figures as Shoriki and Nakasone, and their 
ties to the US, it is precisely the “anti-imperialist critique [added] 
to the discourse on peace and democracy” described by Dower that 
motivates some of the protesters. In Oe’s words: “The structure of the 
Japan in which we now live was set [in the mid-1950s] and has continued 
ever since. It is this that led to the big tragedy” of Fukushima in 
March 2011.2

There is a lot of truth to this. But the building of nuclear power 
plants in Japan, in some places very near lethal seismic faultlines, 
cannot be blamed only on a few right-wing conspirators with shady 
wartime pasts. Despite the early protests, most Japanese ended up 
supporting nuclear energy, partly perhaps because of the common faith in 
science, partly because it seemed like the best option in an archipelago 
critically short of natural resources.

Still, Oe is certainly correct to point his finger at the structure of 
Japan. A much too cozy relationship between government bureaucrats, 
national and local politicians, and big business allowed the Tokyo 
Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to monopolize energy in large areas of 
Japan, including the northeastern coast where the disaster struck. This 
also entailed a virtual monopoly on the truth: nuclear power was good, 
the reactors were safe, there was nothing to worry about—even when, as 
happened several times in the 1970s, 1980s, and after an earthquake in 
2007, pipes were leaking radioactive steam, safety regulations were 
ignored, and fires broke out.

TEPCO’s monopoly was not brutally enforced. It was more a matter of soft 
power. The acquiescence of local communities was bought with corporate 
largesse lavished on schools, sports fields, and other amenities. 
Research chairs at top universities were funded by TEPCO. Vast 
advertizing budgets were spent on the national media. Journalists and 
academics were asked (and presumably well paid) to act as consultants. 
But venality is not the only or perhaps even the most significant way by 
which the Japanese establishment is co-opted.

The largest mainstream newspaper companies, despite some differences in 
political tone, can be depended on to echo a kind of national consensus 
established by the same web of government and business interests of 
which the mainstream press forms an integral part. This is also true of 
the national broadcasting company, NHK, which is often compared to the 
BBC, but has none of its feisty independence.

The so-called “kisha [press] club system,” where specialist reporters 
from the major national papers are allowed exclusive access to 
particular politicians or government agencies, on the understanding that 
these powerful sources will never be discomfited by scoops, unauthorized 
reports, or special investigations, breeds a kind of journalistic 
conformity that is hardly unknown in more freewheeling democracies 
(think of the aftermath of September 11) but is institutionalized in 
Japan. The mainstream press does not really compete for news. What it 
does much too often instead is faithfully reflect the official version 
of reality. One reason for this is quite traditional. In Japanese 
history, as in China or Korea, the intelligentsia—scholar-officials, 
writers, teachers—were frequently servants rather than critics of power.

Not all the press in Japan is mainstream, of course. And there are 
mavericks, naysayers, and whistleblowers in Japan too. Unlike in China, 
they don’t disappear into the maw of a political gulag, but are 
marginalized in other ways. In their book, McNeill and Birmingham point 
out various instances of how this works. During the nuclear disaster at 
Fukushima, NHK never included a critic of nuclear energy in its 
exhaustive daily broadcasts. Even the commercial television channel Fuji 
TV no longer invited an expert back after he let slip, quite accurately, 
that there was danger of a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.

This expert, named Fujita Yuko, had committed the cardinal sin of 
bucking the official consensus that the public should be reassured that 
everything would be fine. Already long before the 2011 disaster, 
academic critics of the nuclear consensus were demoted or otherwise 
pushed aside. Between 2002 and 2006 severe safety risks had actually 
been reported at the Fukushima plant by several people, including 
company employees. These whistleblowers, in Birmingham and McNeill’s 
words, “bypassed both TEPCO and Japan’s Nuclear and Industry Safety 
Agency (NISA), the main regulatory body, because they feared being 
fired. The information was ignored.” According to the former governor of 
Fukushima prefecture, the informants were treated like “state enemies.”

Again, none of this is unknown in other countries. It is just harder in 
an insular, well-ordered society, where everyone should know their 
place, and the comforts and perks of conformity are considerable, to 
crack the façade of official truth.


John Dower quite rightly stresses the brilliance of Japanese wartime 
propaganda. Everyone, from popular cartoonists to kimono designers, from 
the best filmmakers to the most respected university professors, was 
mobilized behind the war effort. When Frank Capra, to prepare for his 
own propaganda films in Hollywood, was shown Japanese movies made in the 
1930s during the war in China, he said: “We can’t beat this kind of 
thing…. We make a film like that maybe once in a decade.” The official 
truth behind the Japanese war was not aggressively racist, as in Nazi 
Germany, or even imbued with the fascist love of violence. What Japan 
was supposedly fighting for was the liberation of Asia from Western 
imperialism and capitalism. Japan represented a new Asian modernity, 
based on justice and equality. Even many leftwing Japanese intellectuals 
were able to subscribe to this.

There were dissidents, even in those days. Many of them were Communists, 
who spent the war in jail. And some writers with well-established 
reputations could afford to retreat into “inner emigration.” But on the 
whole, writers, journalists, academics, and artists conformed. This was 
sometimes enforced, not least by the sinister “Thought Police” who were 
always ready to pounce on domestic critics. But oppression in wartime 
Japan was not as heavy-handed and violent as it was in Germany. It 
didn’t have to be. Exile, unlike in Germany, was not really an option 
for most Japanese; few had either the contacts or the language ability. 
The thought of being excluded, or driven to the margins of society, was 
threatening enough for most people to rally around the national cause. 
The intricate social web of press clubs, advisory committees, 
state-sponsored arts and academic institutions, and mutually helpful 
bureaucrats, soldiers, businessmen, and politicians was flexible and 
inviting enough to co-opt even many of those who were privately 
skeptical about the Japanese war.

A typical case was that of Mori Shogo, a respected member of the 
editorial board at the Mainichi newspaper during the war. The Mainichi 
is still one of the three major news organizations. (The others are the 
liberal-leaning Asahi and the more conservative Yomiuri.) Mori was not a 
dissident, but a patriot who was devastated by the Japanese wartime 
defeat. During the war, he conformed to the official truth: Japan was 
liberating Asia, military defeats were really victories, and so on. What 
is fascinating about the diary he kept in the immediate aftermath of the 
war is the sudden spark of independent thinking.3

Mori complains about the hypocrisy of American press censorship during 
the occupation: “We newspaper men had a difficult time during the war, 
when we were fettered by the militarists and the bureaucrats. Now, under 
the occupation of the US army, we can expect another period of 
hardship.” But the problems were not just those imposed by General 
MacArthur’s “Department of Civil Information” (a misnomer, if there ever 
was one). Mori describes a meeting, in the fall of 1945, of senior 
Mainichi editors to discuss the “press club system.” Should this 
comfortable cartel of the major media, mutually agreeing on what news to 
report, be continued, or should the papers begin to compete in a free 
market of news and ideas? Mori favored the latter option. But he was in 
a minority. The old system continued.

And so it was that in the spring of 2011, after the worst natural 
calamity to hit Japan since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, or, to 
go along with Oe Kenzaburo, the worst man-made disaster since Hiroshima 
and Nagasaki, the Japanese mainstream press decided to stick together 
and pass on the official truth, given out by government officials and 
TEPCO executives, that there was no danger of a meltdown at the 
Fukushima Daiichi plant. Not only that, but reporters from the major 
newspapers and broadcasters retreated together, like a disciplined army, 
from the worst stricken areas after the first hydrogen explosion in 
Fukushima Daiichi on March 12. The official reason was that their 
companies would not allow them to take risks. David McNeill, who was 
there, mentions Japanese who had other explanations.

A professor from Kobe University, Uchida Tatsuru, gave the Asahi 
newspaper his take on the journalistic retreat. There had been no 
attempt to investigate the disaster zone, because the main papers were 
afraid to compete, to do anything different from the others. He claimed 
that this reminded some readers of the war, when the media consistently 
published complete fabrications about Japan’s disastrous military 

One of the heroes in the Fukushima story is Sakurai Katsunobu, mayor of 
Minamisoma, a town fifteen miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. He 
complained to Japanese journalists that “the foreign media and 
freelancers came in droves to report what happened. What about you?” Cut 
off from information and essential food and medical supplies, he felt 
that his town was being abandoned. Out of desperation he turned to 
something that would not have been possible in previous crises. On March 
24, Mayor Sakurai put a camcorded message on YouTube, with English 
subtitles, begging for help: “We’re not getting enough information from 
the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co.” He asked journalists and 
helpers to come to his town, where people were faced with starvation.

The video “went viral.” Sakurai became an international celebrity. Aid 
poured in from all over the world. And foreign as well as freelance 
Japanese reporters did come.

Birmingham and McNeill mention one Japanese freelancer, named Teddy 
Jimbo, founder of an Internet broadcaster called Video News Network. His 
television images from the earthquake zone were seen by almost a million 
people on YouTube. Meanwhile, NHK was still sending out reassuring 
messages on national TV, backed by a nuclear expert from Tokyo 
University named Sekimura Naoto, who told viewers that a major 
radioactive disaster was “unlikely” just before an explosion at one of 
the reactors caused a serious nuclear spill.

Sekimura is also an energy consultant to the Japanese government. Later, 
much too late, NHK and other broadcasters finally bought some of Jimbo’s 
footage. In his words, quoted by Birmingham and McNeill:

     For freelance journalists, it’s not hard to beat the big companies 
because you quickly learn where their line is…. As a journalist I needed 
to go in and find out what was happening. Any real journalist would want 
to do that.

No less than in China or Iran, the Internet has proved to be a vital 
forum for dissident voices in Japan. Another, older source of critical 
views is the varied world of the weekly magazines, some serious, and 
some sensational entertainment. The weeklies came into their own after 
World War II as an alternative to the major media, even though some of 
them are actually published by the big newspapers. And they do not mince 
their words. One journal, the Shukan Shincho, called the TEPCO 
executives “war criminals.”4 But even the magazines can quickly run into 
the limits of what is permissible. AERA, a weekly magazine published by 
the Asahi, had a masked nuclear worker on the cover of its issue dated 
March 19, 2011, with the headline “Radiation Is Coming to Tokyo.” Even 
though, as Birmingham and McNeill point out, this was not untrue, the 
magazine was deemed to have gone too far. An apology was published and 
one of the columnists fired.

So there are gaps in the official truth of Japan. One of the unintended 
consequences of the 3/11 catastrophe has been the widening of these 
gaps. Fewer people believe what they are told. Cynicism toward 
officially sponsored experts has grown. Some see this as a problem. In 
March, Bungei Shunju, a prominent political journal, published an 
anniversary issue of the earthquake. One hundred well-known writers were 
asked to comment on 3/11. One of them, the novelist Murakami Ryu, 
lamented the lack of trust that resulted from the disaster, trust in 
government and the energy industry. It would take years, he said, to 
regain the trust of the Japanese people. Murakami is sixty, and enjoys a 
reputation for being cool, even a bit of a bad boy.

Nosaka Akiyuki, one of the best postwar Japanese novelists, was born in 
1930, a survivor of the bombing raids in World War II.5 He had a rather 
different view of the question of trust. Reflecting on the official 
penchant for hortatory slogans (“Japan, do your best!” “United we 
stand!”), he advised the younger generation to think for itself: “Don’t 
get carried away by fine words. Be skeptical about everything, and then 
carry on.”6

And yes, I did see the islands of Matsushima the second time around. The 
skies were clear. I listened to the guide explaining the splendid 
sights. The tourists around me didn’t seem to be paying much attention 
to what she said. Well, well, I thought, Japan has changed. Then I 
realized they were all Chinese.


     “History Repeats,” The New Yorker, March 28, 2011. ↩

     “Japan Gov’t Media Colluded on Nuclear: Nobel Winner,” AFP, July 
12, 2012. ↩

     Mori Shogo: Aru Janaristo no Haisen Nikki (The Postwar Diary of a 
Journalist) (Tokyo: Yumani Shobo, 1965). ↩

     Quoted by David McNeill in a forthcoming academic paper, “Them 
Versus Us: Japanese and International Reporting of the Fukushima Nuclear 
Crisis.” ↩

     His masterpiece, The Pornographers, translated by Michael Gallagher 
(Knopf, 1968), deserves another attempt at English translation. ↩

     Bungei Shunju, March 2012. ↩

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