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Expect to Be Lied to in Japan

Dominic Nahr/Magnum Photos
Mourners in protective clothing at a cemetery inside the nuclear exclusion zone, Fukushima, Japan, 2012


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.

Yuriko Nakao/Reuters
Oe Kenzaburo speaking at an anti-nuclear gathering, Tokyo, September 2011
  1. 1

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

  2. 2

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

  3. 3

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

  4. 4

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

  5. 5

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

  6. 6

    Bungei Shunju, March 2012. 

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