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The Shrinking Space for Political Dissent

SNA (Tokyo) — The first round of the unified local elections on April 12 showed once again that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party are in firm control of the nation. More than two years after the December 2012 general elections, there remains no sign whatsoever that the opposition parties are on the rebound or can even put up a decent fight against the ruling coalition.

It is probably only natural, therefore, that the conservative politicians who run Japan today are starting to become more confident about pushing their agenda. They may have been traumatized by their three years out power from 2009 to 2012, but their comfort level is rising now that they are back in the saddle and likely to stay there for at least several more years.

One big problem, however, is that the agenda of many of these Japanese conservatives is guided by a spirit that is not particularly democratic nor tolerant of dissent. This characteristic is manifesting itself in a whole series of discrete events, but the pattern is already clear enough.

The battle over the Japanese media was in the spotlight this past week, in particular the events surrounding former elite bureaucrat and now political commentator Shigeaki Koga and his controversial departure from TV Asahi. Koga has alleged that he was booted as an analyst from a popular news program due to pressure on the station’s executives from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. The Abe government denied it, of course, but then the impression that officials were attempting to intimidate the Japanese media became even stronger when TV Asahi executives were called to an unusual hearing at the ruling party headquarters to explain why Mr. Koga had been allowed to criticize the prime minister on national television.

Koga Extreme

Shigeaki Koga

Then, in the last couple of days, this has been followed by an unprecedented ruling party effort to erase from the official records of Diet debate a prominent opposition lawmaker’s comment that the Abe government’s new security legislation amounted to a “War Bill.” Moreover, a young ruling party member has declared in Diet debate that, “There is no freedom to broadcast on NHK anything that goes against the national view.”

It has been a staple of the Japanese right for a long time that they tend to assert that their own views are patriotic and that social critics are “anti-Japanese” simply by virtue of their criticism.

Famously, these rightists also tend to reject the nation’s abysmal humanitarian record during the Pacific War, and even to assume all-too-easily that liberal Japanese are somehow in cahoots with China to insult and to bring down the nation. Now, under the Abe administration, they are entering territory that hasn’t been seen since those pre-Pacific War days—to try to force their critics into silence by increasingly overt measures of intimidation. The space for political dissent in Japan is shrinking, and in the confused minds of the conservatives, this is misconceived as representing national strength.

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