Private and traditional, Japan’s cultural roots have almost guaranteed that outspokenness is never an issue or fear, until that is, one man opened his mouth …


Historically, high-context culture has been deeply rooted in Japanese society, enabling this homogeneous nation to be even more integrated. While Japan’s cultural behaviour may have made communication easy and smooth, its privacy and adaptability depending on the situation have sometimes been questioned.

Although it is one of the historically ingrained manners not to explicitly express their political orientation especially in public, the impression left by the Abe administration’s recent attempt and success to implement the new Legislation for Peace and Security was too big to ignore even for Japanese citizens.

The demonstration against the revision of the Japanese constitution that took place on the 30th of August 2015, was the biggest one since 2012 when people assembled to voice their opposition to nuclear power in the aftermath of the huge earthquake and tsunami that hit the nuclear reactors.

The massive controversy over the new Legislation for Peace and Security has spotlighted another very Japanese problem. Although it is guaranteed by Article 21 of the Japanese constitution, the protests provoked by the new legislation have repeatedly shown that freedom of speech and expression are socially and culturally limited.

On the evening of the 17th of September 2015, just a day before the new Legislation for Peace and Security went into effect, a famous Japanese actor, Junichi Ishida, joined the demonstration just outside the National Diet Building. He stood against the rain right in front of a microphone and vehemently expressed his opposition to the new legislation. Saying:

‘Individual self-defence is enough to protect this country. I don’t understand why some Japanese politicians argue that the right of collective self-defence is necessary. This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Let’s keep building up a pacifist nation that we can be proud of for hundreds of years’.

Whereas it is irregular for Japanese celebrities to clearly spell out their political views in public, quite a few of them actively chose to voice their opinions this time.

Compared to some other celebrities who expressed their political views mostly through Twitter and blogging, the action that Mr Ishida took provoked many disputes. Eventually, he ended up loosing some of his acting jobs. Later, he said in an interview by a Japanese weekly magazine that he was faced with the cancellation of three TV shows and one TV commercial. He continued that he was also warned by advertising agencies not to join the demonstrations or give a political voice to the public ever again. He further added that this was the first time in 35 years since he debuted, that he suddenly had so few jobs on offer.

The production company that Mr Ishida works for has formally denied the fact that he lost his jobs because of political activities. So even though freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Japanese constitution, it looks like there is nothing that can actually protect the rights of individuals like Mr Ishida when they are violated.

A number of opinions circulated on Twitter that either agreed or disagreed with Mr Ishida’s actions following the series of events. There were also many arguments that assessed Mr Ishida’s conduct in itself, especially as something that came from an influential celebrity, regardless of whether one believes in the right of collective self-defence. While some insisted that freedom of speech should remain protected even if he is a celebrity, others maintained that it is part and parcel of being famous to be an ambassador for the masses and present a clean and neutral image.

These disputes demonstrate the contradiction between what is written in the Japanese constitution and how things actually work in a high-context culture. Today, more and more individuals choose to have their own opinions based on independent analysis and experiences rather than follow set cultural norms. But conservatives — some of whom occupy top positions in Japanese industries — continue to show an allergy towards expressing strong political views in public. This disparity has raised questions about how the Japanese people should continue to live under ineffective laws and how they can protect their right to freedom of speech.

A high-context culture has enabled the Japanese people to easily predict each other’s mind and behaviour without saying many words. However, at the same time, this cultural tendency sometimes socially and implicitly violates human rights.

Even if Mr Ishida was never imprisoned or killed because of his anti-governmental activities, which quite often happens in authoritarian states, what happened to him definitely gave the impression to Japanese citizens that expressing their political views could involve some very costly risks. The fear is that this may lead to hesitation in the future from other celebrities or Japanese people in voicing their opinions, which in turn would make Japanese society more conservative and less democratic. In order to put an end to this negative chain reaction, it is important to understand that all Mr Ishida did was fulfil his duty as a citizen of a democratic nation before his duty as a celebrity.

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