Rightist threats raise fears in Japan

Updated: 2007-01-16 18:12

When ruling party lawmaker Koichi Kato criticized a prime minister's trip to a Tokyo war shrine, retribution from Japan's right-wing was swift: An extremist set his house on fire and tried to commit ritual suicide.

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It was the most dramatic in a string of attacks and threats over the past year that have academics, journalists and lawmakers worried that Japan's freedom of expression is under assault by a resurgent nationalist fringe.

"Speech and journalism in this country are facing an extremely difficult situation," Masato Kitamura, chairman of the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association, told the group's annual meeting recently.

Freedom of expression and information has long faced limits in Japan.

The government regularly holds back facts considered public information elsewhere, such as the dates of upcoming executions, while cultural concepts of social harmony and homogeneity discourage gadflies and whistle-blowers.

The left and liberal-leaning journalists have long suffered harassment at the hands of right-wing thugs in postwar Japan. But lately intimidation has surged.

It's "a distorted kind of nationalism which does not tolerate argument." said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University.

"Internet rightists" have set up Web chat sites to attack "anti-Japan" journalists. Outspoken independent lawmaker Makiko Tanaka last year received a string of threatening phone calls for her criticism of the ruling party. A leading newspaper reported late Emperor Hirohito opposed honoring war criminals at a Tokyo shrine - and a firebomb was thrown at the paper's entrance.

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