Japan’s Nasty Nazi-ish Elections

As the Japanese go to the polls Sunday, there are lots of things journalists are not supposed to write about—and if they do, they might go to jail.

12.12.14 1:00 AM ET

TOKYO — Japan will hold elections on December 14. That’s for sure. The question is why? And what’s behind them? And, take note, these are not questions that people in Japan are supposed to ask.

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition was preparing to dissolve the lower house of parliament last month, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told the national media what sort of election coverage they should consider out of bounds. Constitutional reform to allow collective self-defense “isn’t an issue,” he said, even though the remilitarization of Japan is hugely controversial. “We shouldn’t question the details of the secrecy laws one by one,” he said. (Remember, this is a government that insists “the idea that the people’s right to know is more important than the security of the state is fundamentally mistaken.”) So, the ruling party decides what the vote is all about, and it has decided it wants an endorsement of Abe’s economic policies.

Let’s repeat that. The election on December 14th isn’t about Japan’s oppressive (and United Nations-condemned) Designated Secrets Law which went into effect on the December 10, four days before the ballot. It’s not about constitutional reform, or the public right to know. It’s about the virtues of “Abenomics,” stupid, because that’s what the government says it’s about. Got it?

This could be a hard sell, and expensive. These elections are expected to cost the public roughly $500 million (which would have been $700 million in pre-Abe prices—the devaluation of the yen has been impressive). And this comes as Japan has now officially entered a recession with real wages declining by 3 percent in September compared with a year earlier. But the government seems to think the voters can live with that as long as nobody brings up, well, all the other stuff.

Don’t even mention nuclear energy. Yes, more than 70 percent of the Japanese population is opposed to it after the triple nuclear meltdown in Fukushima in March of 2011, but the LDP has a mandate, some of the cabinet ministers have stocks in Tokyo Electric Power Company, so let’s not go there either.

It’s not about the millions of state documents that will become state secrets, including almost everything to do with nuclear energy, either.

Tanaka Minoru, the journalist who dared to report on organized crime links to the nuclear industry and suffered a harassment lawsuit (he won), summarizes the problems with law:

“The top secret classification period can be stretched from five to 60 years. The violators of the law who can be punished for leaks are not just federal or prefectural employees or those working in the defense industry, if citizens or journalists gain knowledge of such secrets by ‘improper’ methods… they can be jailed for up to ten years. The ‘suitability tests’ that will now be conducted on government workers who may handle state secrets is invasive and said to violate basic human rights.”

If you’re in the media and bringing up these freedom of speech issues, then you’d better read the warning letter the LDP sent out to five major broadcasters on November 20th demanding “fair” coverage of the LDP and setting down rules.

Last year, the LDP accused news organizations questioning the Secrets Act of breaking the law. In Japan, the free press can’t criticize attempts to curtail press freedom. So shut up.

This is no laughing matter. In fact, the prime minister has a zero humor policy.

An online stunt by a student poking fun at the administration for calling the snap elections drew angry criticism from Abe himself.

In November, Yamato Aoki, 20, set up a website supposedly run by a 10-year-old boy, which was used to pose simple questions about the Abe government, like, “Why do they have to dissolve the parliament? Or is this also secret?”

Mr. Abe was not amused and on his Facebook page he called these taunts “the most despicable act.”

Many people would use those words to refer to Japan’s imperial colonization of other countries or conducting biological warfare experiments on prisoners of war (which in Abe’s mind never happened)—but impersonating a ten-year-old to make fun of him appears to be the “most despicable” act.

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Mr. Aoki deleted the website and posted a public apology. But the question remains: What is this election really about?

Perhaps it’s about squelching the scandals around members of the Abe cabinet who have been accused of illegal activities. Two of his appointed ministers in the second cabinet already had to quit under suspicion of violating political fund control laws and other laws. A third cabinet member used public funds to pay in an S & M bar. Other cabinet minister scandals have been reported in the media, and investigations may take place.

According to the newspaper Nikkan Gendai, in August of this year, a criminal complaint was lodged with the Tokyo Prosecutor against Abe, accusing the Prime Minister himself of violating the political funding laws and taking illegal donations. Scandals were what took Abe down the first time he was in office in 2007.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, although it’s certainly unsettling, that the Abe administration seems to be picking up tips from the Nazi Party’s playbook.

Two of Abe’s last cabinet appointees associated with Japan’s Nazi Party and one of them wrote a laudatory blurb for a book on Hitler’s election strategy, and the Vice Prime Minister Taro Aso seems to have telegraphed the intentions of the regime quite eloquently (but accidentally) when he expressed his admiration for the Nazis’ knack for covert constitutional reform.

One of the clever things the Nazis did in the last days of the Weimar Republic was suspend freedom of the press. The current administration just abolished it with a new law so nebulous that even asking about a state secret (whether you know it’s a secret or not) could get you up to five years in prison—for instigating a leak. And what can be declared secret? That’s secret as well.

We’d have had a bigger discussion about the secrecy law in the media but hey, election coverage comes first. How convenient.

The first reportage of the snap elections came from Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest paper, which has been jokingly called the official newspaper of the LDP. It had the scoop on the front page on November 9, which noted the days the elections would likely be held, and that it was about Abenomics, and set the tone.

As if to show solidarity with the Abe government, on November 28, Yomiuri apologized for using the words “sex-slaves” to describe the women sexually exploited by Japan’s Imperial Army. That act of historical revisionism was reviled by the world, but it was gleefully received by the LDP, which would like us to believe that during Japan’s brutal Imperial rule all the women working at brothels, called “comfort stations,” were well-paid Happy Hookers, who turned tricks of their own free will.

There’s also the matter of racism. Nothing bonds people together like a common enemy. Eriko Yamatani, the appointed head of the Public Safety Commission, which is supposed to oversee the police, had longstanding ties to virulent anti-Korean hate-speech group, Zaitoku-kai, which she refuses to renounce by name.

During the Abe regime, the Korean-Japanese residents have quietly become the Jews of Japan, reviled, blamed for Japan’s economic woes, accused of being spies. Anti-Korean publications are sold at every bookstore in Japan.

Prime Minister Abe has remained silent on the issue, allowing the hatred to fester while keeping his hands relatively clean.

The snap elections make sense in a way, all ironies aside. The time to consolidate power for four more years is now. Professor Jeff Kingston of Temple University and author of Contemporary Japan explains the situation quite well: “This may be the least-worst bad time for the LDP to seek a renewed mandate.”

When the votes are in, Abe and the LDP probably will rule over a Japan where asking the wrong questions or blowing the whistle can get you sent to jail for up to ten years and the government can deal with any problem by calling it a secret and putting it off limits.

The Japanese word for this is yaritaihoudai—literally, “to do whatever you want, as much as you want.”

If you think this election is about something else, your right to ask expired in Japan on Tuesday at midnight.

It’s a state secret now. Trust us, you don’t want to even ask anymore.