Japan’s Double Standard on Freedoms and Rule of Law

 
 

A number of domestic and international developments have revealed a glaring disconnect between the Japanese government’s preaching and its practice on the issue of universal values.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proudly declared a values-based diplomacy for Japan in both his first (2006-07) and second administrations (2012-), emphasizing universal values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In January 2013, not long after the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) regained power, he outlined the basic principles on which his government’s diplomacy would be based. One of these fundamental principles was the concept of “universal values.” A month later, he publicly repeated this commitment to “diplomacy that places emphasis on universal values.”

As a diplomatic tool, rhetoric such as “democracy, human rights and the rule of law” justifies the Abe government’s continuing alignment with Japan’s long-standing democratic allies and with other semi-democracies in Asia that share his strong reservations about China’s unpeaceful rise. It also pointedly excludes China by definition from any putative coalition of democratically aligned states.

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On the other hand, several recent actions and policies of the Abe administration, particularly in the domestic domain, suggest that the prime minister’s declarations of a commitment to universal values are primarily a diplomatic device for international consumption. They do not represent a guide to the government’s stance at home on a number of key issues. Quite the contrary, the prime minister’s record clearly shows that his government is taking Japan in an authoritarian direction that is unprecedented in the postwar era. What is more, these steps seriously question Abe’s commitment to universal values.

Among a series of deleterious developments, the Abe administration’s record in dealing with the media demonstrates that it is falling well short of observing first principles of democratic accountability. Amongst the most egregious examples of media-muzzling are attempts to silence media critics, including creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation amongst journalists and other commentators who dare to question the government’s and ruling party’s policies, personnel and actions. In addition to the administration’s explicit actions to control the message, the 2013 State Secrets Law compounds the threat to freedom of news reporting by hanging over journalists’ heads like the sword of Damocles.

In the education sector, the Abe government has censored school textbooks, ensuring that the latest versions for students follow the government’s uniform line on history and territorial issues. The bottom of this slippery slope will land Japanese students in the same position as those in China, for whom only official accounts of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre are available and who are taught that the Dalai Lama is a terrorist.

The Abe government has also heavied universities to rid themselves of humanities and social science departments, arguably, amongst other things, to discourage the training of students’ critical thinking skills, thus silencing another potential source of criticism of the government.

Yet another and possibly the most disturbing example is the proposed content of the LDP’s May 2012 draft revisions to the 1947 Constitution. In glaring contrast to the human rights Abe cites internationally as “universal,” the draft explicitly rejects this notion. It states that human rights derive from a country’s history, culture, and traditions, and are, therefore, qualified to the extent that they are influenced by these factors. Indeed, the maintenance of so-called “public order” is elevated over all individual rights, raising the question, “public order” as defined by whom? Presumably “the government of the day.” Instead of universal human rights, Japanese citizens will be given “duties and obligations” (unspecified) – no doubt, once again, to be defined by public authorities. At the same time, the prime minister has undermined the rule of law by claiming in the Diet to be the ultimate source of authority regarding interpretation of the Constitution, an act for which he will be judged by the electorate. In short, the meaning of the constitution is what the prime minister says it is, which would potentially remove the Japanese constitution’s safeguards against the rise of authoritarianism.

Last but not least is the Abe government’s flouting of the ruling of the highest court of the UN, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Japan’s whale hunt in the Southern Ocean. In March 2014, ICJ ruled that Japan’s Antarctic whale hunts were unscientific and ordered it to stop hunting. Only three months after this ruling, in June 2014, Prime Minister Abe told the Japanese parliament that he wanted to aim for the resumption of commercial whaling by conducting whaling research. He thus personally endorsed the resumption of commercial whaling, which Japan had been conducting on spurious scientific grounds under the politicized term “research whaling” (chōsa hogei) used ubiquitously by Japanese authorities and in the media.

Japan has since resumed lethal research whaling under the much publicized heading of NEWREP-A and stated that it will not accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ on marine living resources, reflecting a clear double standard in its stance on the rule of law internationally. Nor does Japan recognize the Australian Antarctic Territory’s EEZ, or its Whale Sanctuary, or the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

The reality is that Japanese whaling is neither scientific nor commercial. It is a government-subsidized and sponsored industry conducted for the benefit of the Japanese whaling industry-cum-lobby and is certainly not for the benefit of Japanese consumers. This lobby is headed by the semi-governmental Institute of Cetacean Research, charged with propagandizing the virtues of whaling and an affiliated organ (gaikaku dantai) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). Apart from providing plum positions for retired bureaucrats, many such groups play key roles in the ancillary apparatus of government intervention by undertaking regulatory and/or allocatory functions as well as participating directly in markets.

Whaling is defended against international attack on spurious cultural grounds, traditionally the last defense of the protectionists. The Japanese government tried the same defense of its rice industry at the Uruguay Round of the GATT, proselytizing the notion of rice as quintessentially a cultural good in Japan. Here it was considerably more successful, extracting a concession that allowed rice to be spared from tariffication under the 1994 Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture (URAA).

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