TIME Japan

Science Scandal Triggers Suicide, Soul-Searching in Japan

Sasai, deputy director of the Riken's Center for Developmental Biology, poses for a photo with Haruko Obokata in front of a screen showing STAP cells, in Kobe
Yoshiki Sasai, right, deputy director of the Riken's Center for Developmental Biology, poses for a photo with Haruko Obokata on Jan. 28, 2014. Kyodo/Reuters

Yoshiki Sasai’s death has generated mixed emotions among Japan's scientific community

It was a success story that Japan sorely needed: a young, talented and beautiful researcher developed a cheap and simple way to grow versatile stem cells.

The discovery promised to usher in a new age of regenerative medicine, validated Japan as a leader in scientific research and demonstrated that even in a male-dominated society, women could excel when given a chance.

Alas, it may have been too good to be true.

Intrigued by researcher Haruko Obokata’s breakthrough, other scientists tried but failed to replicate her results. Peer-review websites accused her of falsifying data and doctoring images, and supervisors were accused of lax management. Obokata, 30, was forced to retract her scientific papers, and the government-sponsored research center where she worked launched a formal investigation.

The matter took a darker turn this week when Obokata’s supervisor and mentor, Yoshiki Sasai, a noted scientist in his own right, was found hanging from a stairway railing at his office.

In farewell letters found at his desk, Sasai reportedly apologized for the turmoil, but urged Obokata to continue her work and to prove her detractors wrong.

Sasai’s death cast a pall over the controversy. But in a nation where suicide does not carry the same stigma as in some Western countries, there has been a certain degree of sympathy — if not outright approval.

“This is seen in some respects as an honorable way out of a shameful and devastating turn of events: ‘A highflyer brought low by an underling’s mistakes, seeking to atone for and expunge the shame,’” says Jeffrey Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Tokyo’s Temple University-Japan. “This touches a chord of sympathy and understanding in Japan.”

Sasai was a noted stem-cell scientist and deputy director of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, in Kobe — part of a national research system that receives roughly $1 billion a year in government support and is part of an ambitious effort to boost scientific research throughout Japan.

The 52-year-old was not directly involved in Obokata’s research, but had helped recruit her and supervised the research papers that were published in the British journal Nature in January.

But whether Sasai’s death generates sympathy for Obokata or the rest of Japan’s scientific community remains to be seen.

Obokata burst onto the scene in late January with the publication of the Nature papers, of which she was the lead author. Those studies claimed to have found a new way of creating stem cells, dubbed stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP. Such cells could be used to create new tissue, with potential for treating illnesses like Alzheimer’s, heart disease and stroke.

Poised and photogenic, Obokata was an instant hit with Japan’s frenetic media —mainstream and social, alike. Here, after all, was a different kind of scientist. Even in the lab, Obokata flashed stylish clothes, false eyelashes and fashionable hairstyles. She eschewed the usual white lab coat in favor of a traditional housewife’s kappogi (a gift from her grandmother, she explained) and had the walls of her lab painted pink and yellow and decorated with cartoon characters.

Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has made “womenomics” a key plinth of his economic revival package, noticed. He commended Obokata’s apparent achievement from the floor of Japan’s Parliament and vowed to build “a country where the women are the brightest in the world.”

But it didn’t take long for doubts to surface. Peer-review websites noticed oddities and discrepancies in Obokata’s research. Attempts to replicate her findings failed.

By mid-February, RIKEN had launched an internal investigation. In April, officials charged Obokata with fabricating data, doctoring images and borrowing descriptions from other research papers.

Meanwhile, discrepancies were found in the research of other leading scientists, though none with the public profile of Obokata.

In an excruciating, four-hour press conference televised live by many of Japan’s major networks, a tearful Obokata struggled to maintain her composure. She admitted errors in her research papers, but maintained they were innocent mistakes that did not affect the final results. STAP cells were real, she insisted.

She has remained on the staff at RIKEN but has maintained a low profile, refusing interviews. In July, RIKEN officials announced that she would be allowed to take part in a five-month experiment designed to discover once and for all whether her initial findings were real. Other researchers and video cameras would monitor her work, officials said.

The RIKEN affair has been watched closely by Japan’s scientific community, which has produced its share of Nobel Prizes but is often viewed as insular and underperforming.

“One thing that should not be lost in all this is that Japan produces outstanding science,” says Jonathan Dorfan, a former director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, at Stanford University, and now president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan.

“People in the scientific community here are paying attention to this, and hopefully that will lead to the kind of training that will avoid an outcome like this happening again.”

TIME Japan

Japan Ends Ban on Military Self-Defense

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo on July 1, 2014. Kazuhiro Nogi—AFP/Getty Images

But the public worries that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is turning his back on the country's post-WWII pacifism

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a major revision to Japan’s pacifist postwar defense policy amid wide public protests Tuesday — but don’t expect to see Japanese troops sweeping across foreign battlefields anytime soon.

Under the new policy, Japan’s powerful but low-profile military would be allowed to defend friends and allies under attack for the first time, even overseas. It’s part of a new interpretation of Japan’s war-renouncing constitution that Abe has pushed since taking office 18 months ago.

But ending the ban on so-called collective self-defense comes amid widespread public opposition. Thousands of protesters ringed Abe’s office during his televised announcement. A middle-aged man in a business suit set himself afire in protest in downtown Tokyo on Sunday — a shocking event in normally docile Japan.

But in many ways, the new policy merely formalizes the linguist sleight-of-hand that has allowed an officially pacifist nation to maintain a military of 250,000 well-trained and well-equipped troops in the first place.

“This is not a game changer,” says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. “The Japanese have always been able to find a way to do whatever was needed to defend their interests and meet their obligations under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. What this does is allow them to do things more openly.”

At issue is Article 9 of the constitution, written in the early days of the U.S. occupation of 1945–52. The article formally renounces Japan’s right to wage war or maintain a military:

Article 9

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of forces as a means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Various interpretations over the years have allowed Japan to develop robust air, land and sea forces and maintain the right to defend itself against attack, should that ever be necessary (so far, it hasn’t). Until now, however, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have operated on the premise that they could not come to the aid of friendly countries — like the U.S., for example — unless the Japanese were directly attacked as well.

Abe says that has to change. North Korea’s development of nuclear warheads and long-range missiles, and China’s growing defense spending and military assertiveness, means that no country in the region can defend itself on its own, according to Abe. If Japan wants to count on its friends, its friends must be able to count on Japan too.

“The most important thing is that this makes it possible for us to work more closely with countries in the region to maintain the balance of power and deterrence vis-à-vis China. Unless Japan can exercise the right of collective self-defense, we can’t even participate in joint training exercises, even in peacetime,” says Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

Abe has been pushing an aggressive defense agenda even as he’s struggled to right Japan’s ailing economy. He has organized a new National Security Council, rammed through a tough new state-secrets law and ordered a small but important increase in defense spending.

But ending the ban on collective self-defense has been a hard sell, even to Abe’s own ruling block. Resistance from within his coalition forced a milder version of the policy than recommended by a handpicked advisory committee earlier this year. Abe has attempted to placate concerns by vowing Japan would never abandon its pacifist ideals. Under no circumstances, he said Tuesday, would Japanese troops be sent to fight in wars like those in Iraq or Afghanistan, even if the new policy permits.

“We shall never repeat the horror of war. With this reflection in mind, Japan has gone on for 70 years after the war. It will never happen that Japan again becomes a country which goes to war,” Abe said.

The public may need more convincing. In a Kyodo News poll over the weekend, 55.4% of respondents expressed opposition to Abe’s plan, up from 48.1% just a month ago. Thousands of well-dressed, mostly middle-class citizens protested overnight Monday and Tuesday in front of Abe’s official residence at the perceived shift from Japan’s pacifist post-WWII constitution. “The current constitution is the result of the sacrifice of more than three million Japanese and more than 20 million Asian victims of war,” Yoshihiko Murata, a 74-year-old protester, told the Guardian. “We should value it more.”

On Sunday, a man spoke calmly for 30 minutes against the new policy from a pedestrian bridge near the busy Shinjuku train station, then doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. The man survived, though his current condition is not known. Although the incident was largely ignored by Japan’s mainstream news media, the incident lit up the country’s busy social media and scores of videos were posted on YouTube and other sites, garnering more than a million views.

The U.S. welcomes the new policy, as have leaders in Australia and the Philippines. The reaction in China and South Korea, which suffered mightily during Japan’s era of wartime and colonial expansion, has been less sanguine, of course. Michishita says the new policy is unlikely to make much practical difference. Japan has not had to invoke its right of individual self-defense since the end of World War II. If deterrence works, the same should hold for collective self-defense.

“People might expect us to do more now that we have the right to exercise collective self-defense, but we might end up doing not much more, and that might actually undermine the confidence of people in the region in Japan,” he says. “They could end up saying, ‘Well, after all this fuss, Japan is not going to do anything significantly different.’”


Abe Moves a Step Closer to Easing Restraints on Japan’s Military

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a speech during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo on May 15, 2014 Kazuhiro Nogi—AFP/Getty Images

Japan's Prime Minister makes an explicit connection between China's territorial ambitions in the South and East China seas and Japan's ability to defend itself and its allies

Against the backdrop of violent clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese patrol ships in the South China Sea last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced plans to change the interpretation of the country’s pacifist constitution to allow Japan’s armed forces to engage in “collective self-defense.”

That means Japan’s potent but currently low-profile military would be allowed to fight alongside the U.S. or other friendly forces — even if Japanese troops or territory do not come under direct attack first.

In a live, televised speech, Abe made a direct connection between the Sino-Vietnamese skirmishes and the tense standoff over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The outcrops are claimed by both Japan and China, which refers to them as the Diaoyu Islands.

“In the South China Sea, as we speak, conflict among nations continues as a unilateral action against the backdrop of force and coercion,” Abe said. “This is not a fire on the other side of the shore of the river. In the East China Sea, the Japan Coast Guard [and] the self-defense forces — under high tension, on a 24-hour, around-the-clock basis — are engaging in patrol activities [against] intrusions in Japanese territorial waters.”

Abe says the new constitutional interpretation is necessary to strengthen the U.S.-Japan security alliance and deal with an increasingly hostile security environment in Asia.

Easing restraints on Japan’s military and instilling a sense of “patriotism” among the Japanese has long been a goal of Abe and his conservative, if not nationalist, supporters.

Under the new interpretation, Japanese troops would be able to defend U.S. ships at sea, shoot down ballistic missiles headed toward U.S. territory, protect U.N. troops on peacekeeping missions, rescue Japanese citizens overseas and engage in similar activities.

“What Abe is saying is that to play the global role that is expected of Japan, given its size and its capacity, they should be able to assist the international community in certain situations where peace and stability are in danger and in joining the defense of other countries. This is something the Americans have been asking Japan to do for decades,” says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.

When the new policy will go into effect is still unclear. Although a national referendum is not required — as it would be if Abe had proposed changing the constitution itself — the Diet will have to amend laws regulating the self-defense forces, peacekeeping operations and related issues.

That may not be easy. Opinion polls show that roughly half the population is opposed to the new interpretation. Article 9, the foundation of Japan’s 70-year commitment to pacifism, expressly renounces “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

Although Abe’s ruling coalition holds a solid majority in both houses of the Diet, even some members of his Liberal Democratic Party have expressed reservations about the change. Debate on the issue began on Tuesday, though a final resolution is not expected until later in the year.

“People are worried about three major things: the risk that this revision will lead to the Japan Self-Defense Force being more actively engaged in overseas military operations, that this will lead to Japan’s policies under Abe being increasingly militarized and assertive, and that this will be the first step toward a new Article 9, which would not only dilute but destroy Japan’s image as a country of peace,” says Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Daito Bunka University and author of a forthcoming book on Japan’s postwar military and security.

Abe insisted during his speech last week that Japan remains committed to peace and that the new policy — issued in the form of recommendations from an advisory panel — would not be the first step on the road to remilitarization.

While Japan’s right to defend itself independently from attack would not change, “collective self-defense” would be invoked only under a specific set of conditions and only after careful deliberations by the Cabinet, Abe said.

According to panel recommendations, “collective self-defense” would be invoked only when requested by a foreign country “in close relationship with Japan” and would involve “minimum necessary” use of force.

Abe said Japan would not be dragged into American-led multinational operations like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although he was not clear in how distinctions would be made.

Unsurprisingly, the new policy was viewed with suspicion by some of Japan’s neighbors.

“China, as well as the Republic of Korea, have been critical and vigilant about this for a long time. Abe’s stance on such issues as Japan’s role during World War II and comfort-women issues make most of the people in these two countries more doubtful about the reinterpretation of Japan’s right of collective self-defense,” says Tiejun Yu, assistant president at the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University in Beijing.

Not to worry – Japan will not be dispatching troops at every opportunity, counters Kuni Miyake, research director for foreign affairs and national security at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.

“Collective self-defense is a right — it’s not on obligation. The government will make decisions based on each situation. We have to show that we can behave — that under our democracy, we can control ourselves and that we have self-discipline and restraint,” Miyake says.

But what if the standoff in the South China Sea were to escalate and Vietnam were to ask for Japan’s help in defending its interests from China? Would Japan invoke the right of collective self-defense and come to Vietnam’s aid?

“I think it’s unlikely. There are many, many ifs involved,” Miyake says. “But, I would not completely rule it out.”

TIME Japan

Best-Selling Author Feels the Heat in Japan’s History Wars

People mourn the of Nanking Massacre on August 15, 2012 in Nanjing, Jiangsu, China TPG/Getty Images

Just when you thought the battle over Japan’s wartime history couldn’t get any weirder, a best-selling author was forced to issue a denial about a previous denial — in his own book – that Japanese troops had committed one of the worst atrocities of World War II. That is, he said, they didn’t.

Henry Scott Stokes, a leading Western journalist and longtime defender of Japan’s right wing, told Kyodo News Service last week that he was unaware that the Japanese-language version of his book includes an assertion that the infamous 1937 “Nanking Massacre” had never occurred.

He called that assertion “straightforward right-wing propaganda.”

The book, whose title translates as “Falsehoods of the Allied Nations’ Victorious View of History, as Seen by a British Journalist,” has sold more than 100,000 copies since it went on sale in December.

It comes amid a boom in publications that cater to right-wing views in Japan as well as nasty historical disputes with Asian neighbors. It was released only in Japanese.

Stokes, 75, is a former correspondent and Tokyo bureau chief for the New York Times, Financial Times and Times of London.

Although the book presents a largely – if not overwhelmingly — sanitized view of Japan’s wartime conduct, Stokes, who said in recent interviews he does not read or write Japanese, told Kyodo that the Nanking denial had been inserted in the translated version of his book without his knowledge.

Late Friday, he sharply reversed course.

In a carefully worded joint statement with publisher Shodensha, Stokes, who suffers from advanced Parkinson’s disease, said there is no disagreement.

“The author’s opinion is: The so-called ‘Nanking Massacre’ never took place. The word ‘Massacre’ is not right to indicate what happened,” the statement said.

In an interview last month, Stokes had said “ghastly events” had occurred at Nanking, but that the Japanese were not alone responsible.

Stokes has long been a darling of Japan’s right wing. He moved to Tokyo from London in 1964 and served as bureau chief for major U.S. and British newspapers in the 1960s and ‘70s. He published a well-received biography of nationalist icon Yukio Mishima in 1974 and remains on friendly terms with conservative leaders and activists.

Because his illness makes it difficult to write or type, his “Falsehoods” book was based on more than 170 hours of taped interviews. Written essay-style, the book was assembled from those interviews by Hiroyuki Fujita, a translator closely associated with conservative causes.

Stokes said in a recent interview that he had not read the finished book. He told Kyodo that he was unaware of the apparent turbulence concerning Nanking until Kyodo brought to his attention.

Fujita said the controversy centered around just two lines in the 250-page book. Fujita said that after discussions with Stokes and Shodensha officials it was jointly decided that no changes were necessary.

“What Henry has in mind and what is written in Japanese in his best-seller book have the common implication behind them: We should not say ‘Nanking Massacre’ to understand what really happened in Nanking,” Fujita said in a written statement.

Still, not everyone is convinced that the book accurately portrays Stokes’ views.

A Tokyo journalist hired to transcribe the taped interviews for a potential English-language edition said she quit in protest. She said she became convinced that the interviews had been taken out of context.

“I felt that what you said in the transcripts was completely different on important points from what is written in your book,” transcriber Angela Erika Kubo wrote in a May 4 email to Stokes.

Although estimates vary for the number of victims, mainstream historians agree that many tens of thousands of civilians were killed by marauding Japanese troops in Nanking over a six-week period beginning in December 1937.

Stokes’ association with leading Western news organizations – he is now a freelance writer — undoubtedly appealed to his publishers and helped give the book mass-market appeal, said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian Studies at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo.

“They knew that he bestowed a credibility that they would never have on their own. They would be dismissed as right-wing crackpots, while Henry Scott Stokes has a rich pedigree,” Kingston said.

Sven Saaler, an associate professor of Japanese history at Tokyo’s Sophia University, said the controversy is not surprising. Nor do the brisk sales necessarily mean that right-wing views have broad appeal in Japan.

“These kind of publications have always been around, and always have been selling a few ten-thousand copies to a certain audience. But the revisionist views of history have yet to reach a broader segment of society. The revisionist views are deeply rooted in parts of the Japanese elite, particularly in the political class, so there is a gap between historical views,” Saaler said.

Lucy Birmingham, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, said the foreign press corps in Japan has come under increasing attack from conservative news media for alleged anti-Japanese bias in recent years, and pressure to toe the line is likely to continue.

“It’s difficult to know exactly what Henry Scott Stokes’ views are. He has been quoted as saying diametrically different things in different publications,” says Birmingham, a freelance writer who has written for TIME and other publications.

“Foreign journalists in Japan are in the crossfire. It’s coming from a small, but loud minority of right-wing writers and publishers who are testing the media waters on their extreme views … It’s the attitude, ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us.'”

TIME Japan

A Japanese Soccer Team Plays to an Empty Stadium Because of Racist Fans

First, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes the country on a rightward, nationalist shift. Now soccer fans unfurl banners reading "Japanese only" at stadium entrances


Japanese soccer officials have found a novel way to prevent racist behavior in the stands: Don’t let the fans show up.

Officials ordered one of the top teams in Japan’s professional J-League to play in an empty stadium Sunday as punishment for a “Japanese only” banner that fans displayed during a game in Tokyo earlier this month.

That incident came amid rising concerns in Japan over nationalist sentiments. Japan is mired in ugly disputes with neighboring China and South Korea over territorial claims and historical issues.

Officials of the Urawa Red Diamonds team said a small group of supporters hung a “Japanese only” banner in a stadium entranceway during a home game on March 8. They said the banner was to discourage foreigners from sitting in that section and disrupting group cheers; security guards later reported hearing “discriminatory remarks” toward foreigners.

Team officials said they did not remove the banner until after the game because, initially, they did not deem it racist or discriminatory. The issue went viral after fans posted photos of the banner online.

Urawa Reds’ officials later apologized and said they had banned about 20 members of a supporters’ group. The team president said he would return three months’ salary as a show of responsibility.

That wasn’t good enough for league officials, however. They ordered Urawa Reds to play their next home game — Sunday — in an empty stadium.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has provoked concern over rising nationalist sentiments in Japan.

In December, he drew a sharp rebuke from the U.S., as well as neighboring countries, for visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines 14 Class A war criminals. Abe appointees to key broadcasting posts have disputed Japan’s responsibility for wartime atrocities and other abuses.

It’s unclear how much the Abe Administration’s rightward tilt may have encouraged soccer fans’ behavior, says Robert Dujarric, director of Temple University’s Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, in Tokyo.

“As much as Abe’s been doing all the wrong things, he doesn’t actually spew out the sort of xenophobic stuff that you get in Europe. Overall, I’d say the ‘Japanese only’ banner is not reflective of the bulk of Japanese society,” Dujarric said.

During Sunday’s match, stadium billboards were replaced with signs promoting the U.N.’s Sports for Peace program and players’ uniforms sported matching logos.

In a brief ceremony before the game, team captain Yuki Abe said the players pledged to “stamp out racism, be it discrimination against race, skin color, gender, language or religion or background, and will not tolerate any discriminatory or insulting language or behavior.”

Urawa Reds, one of the few J-League teams without a foreign player, were fined about $50,000 in 2010 when fans taunted foreign players on another team.

Urawa Reds and Shimizu S-Pulse played to a 1-1 draw.

TIME Japan

Japan’s New Nationalist Streak on Display at Iwo Jima Battlefield

Prime Minister Abe Visit Ogasawara Islands
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offers a flower durinf a memorial service to commemorate the war deads of the World War II at Iwo Island on April 14, 2013 in Ogasawara, Tokyo, Japan. The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to boost defense spending and ease restraints on the country's armed forces. But on the 69th anniversary of the bloody World War II battle, concerns resurface over how Japan's nationalist government remembers the past

Sixty-nine years after one of the bloodiest battles of World War II was fought on this tiny island, a new conflict is underway – how to remember Japan’s role in the war.

“I am deeply concerned that the memory of the battle of Iwo Jima is gradually fading,” says Tetsuro Teramoto, whose father was among the more than 21,000 Japanese soldiers who perished in the fighting. More than 6,000 U.S. Marines died there, as well, and another 20,000 were wounded.

“We have a responsibility to devote ourselves to passing our memories to the following generations in order not to repeat such a tragedy,” said Teramoto, who heads a support organization for families of the war dead. Teramoto was not yet born when his father was killed by the Marines.

Nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sparked bitter criticism last year when he visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals – wartime leaders — are enshrined along with more than two million other Japanese war dead. A museum associated with the shrine teaches that the United States tricked Japan into starting the war; that atrocities like the infamous Nanking Massacre never occurred; and that Japan fought to liberate its neighbors from Western colonialism, as opposed to establishing its own empire.

That does not sit well with many of 250 Japanese and American veterans, family members and supporters who gathered here this week to honor those who fought and died on both sides.

“That’s hogwash. They attacked Pearl Harbor. They started it and they know it. But it’s over now. We should let bygones be bygones,” says Bob Hensley, 89, a Marine rifleman who was assigned to collecting bodies during the 37 days of brutal fighting.

“We should never forget that the peace and prosperity we enjoy today is built on the sacrifice of these soldiers. For Japan to move to the (political) right absolutely is not acceptable,” says Teramoto.

Iwo Jima – now Ioto – was the first battle fought on Japanese soil. The Americans wanted the island as a fighter base and emergency landing site for B-29 bombers attacking the Japanese mainland.

Defenders were prepared to fight to the death. They spent nearly a year building an intricate system of reinforced bunkers, connected by 11 miles of tunnels and caves. They survived a three-day naval barrage nearly unscathed and poured murderous fire on Marines who had to slog through deep black sand into the teeth of Japanese defenses. Of the entire garrison, only 210 Japanese soldiers survived.

The battle produced the iconic photo of Marines raising the flag over Mt. Suribachi. And it inspired a pair of acclaimed 2006 movies by director Clint Eastwood – Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which told the story from the American and Japanese perspectives.

Among the Japanese delegation to this week’s ceremonies were two dozen members of parliament from the Japanese Diet. They included members of Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party, nearly all staunch defenders of Japan’s pacifist Constitution. Abe, a strong supporter of the U.S.-Japan defense alliance, wants to boost defense spending, ease restraints on Japan’s self-defense forces and promote a more “patriotic” view of Japanese history. Abe has acknowledged being strongly influenced by his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was a member of Japan’s wartime Cabinet and was arrested on suspicion of war crimes. Kishi was released without charges and later served as prime minister.

Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, in Tokyo, and a former Marine Corps liaison with the Japan Ground Self Defense Force, says that Abe’s rightist views are not shared by the majority of Japanese society. “Abe and a slice of Japan’s ruling class believe Japan did a noble deed with its war to throw off the white man’s yoke in Asia… But is Japan becoming more militaristic? No, I don’t see it,” Newsham said at a recent forum in Tokyo.

And that’s fine with Bob Hensley. “When we were here, we hated them and they hated us, and we were trying to kill each other. But that’s changed,” says Hensley. “We’ve been friends a long time and I hope it stays that way.”

TIME Japan

Japanese Broadcast Official: We Didn’t Commit War Crimes, the U.S. Just Made That Up

2013 Booksellers' Award Announced
Writer and NHK board member Naoki Hyakuta, seen here last year at the launch of one of his books, believes the Japanese did not commit war crimes in World War II and that the U.S. fabricated them The Asahi Shimbun

Japan's top TV figures are making increasingly outrageous statements about World War II

In the clearest signal yet of U.S. unhappiness with the rightward tilt of Japan’s political leadership — and by extension, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — the U.S. embassy in Tokyo has strongly condemned charges by a top official at Japan’s national public broadcaster that Americans fabricated war crimes against Japanese leaders during World War II in order to cover up American atrocities.

“These suggestions are preposterous. We hope that people in positions of responsibility in Japan and elsewhere would seek to avoid comments that inflame tensions in the region,” an embassy spokesman told TIME early on Friday.

The charges were made this week by Naoki Hyakuta, a nationalist writer and close friend of Abe, who was recently appointed to the board of governors of the Japan Broadcasting Corp., commonly known as NHK.

In campaign speeches on behalf of a far-right candidate for the governorship of Tokyo, Hyakuta claimed that the infamous Nanjing Massacre in 1937 never occurred, and that Americans staged the postwar trials of Japanese leaders to cover up U.S. war crimes. He said those crimes included the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the mass firebombings of Tokyo.

The staunchly conservative Abe himself caused diplomatic outrage in December, when he paid his respects at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine — a memorial to the Japanese war dead including 14 high-ranking war criminals. Beijing, Seoul and Washington strongly condemned the visit. Now supporters of Abe who have been appointed to NHK’s top decisionmaking body are fueling tensions by making revisionist or inflammatory statements.

Last week, the new NHK chairman Katsuto Momii provoked outrage both at home and abroad when he said all of the countries involved in World War II maintained “comfort women” — a euphemism for the system of forced prostitution employed by the Japanese military during the war years.

That charge prompted a frosty denial from the U.S. embassy in Tokyo that American forces had engaged in any such activity.

Along with Hyakuta’s charges, it was reported this week that another NHK board member had published an essay praising the leader of a nationalist group who committed ritual suicide in the offices of a major newspaper in October 1993 to protest negative news coverage.

Board member Michiko Hasegawa wrote that because the activist recited a brief prayer to the Emperor before shooting himself in the abdomen, “His Majesty the Emperor has again become a living god.”
 Hasegawa is a professor emeritus of Japanese cultural studies in Tokyo.

Japan’s Emperors were once worshipped as living gods, but are designated under the current constitution as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.” As such, they have no governing authority or official religious function.

Hasegawa, who also has close ties to Abe, published the essay in connection with a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the activist’s death.

The appointment of such staunch nationalists to NHK’s board is part of a concerted campaign by the Abe administration to recast Japan as the true victim of World War II and put a more benign face on the country’s often brutal colonial practices, says Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

“These are Abe’s cronies, they agree with his revisionist views, and now he’s putting them in positions of power and influence,” says Kingston. “What they don’t realize is that the right-wing revisionists are not convincing many people in Japan, and they are not convincing people outside Japan. What they are doing is creating a huge diplomatic problem.”

Japan is locked in increasingly tense disputes with neighboring China and South Korea over territorial and historical issues. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry denounced Hyakuta’s statements on the Nanjing Massacre as “a barefaced challenge to international justice and human conscience” and called on Japan to “face up” to its history.

China says 300,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians died in Nanjing during a weeks-long rampage by Japanese troops. Although some mainstream historians put the number of casualties lower, few — if any — deny the incident occurred.

Critics say the Abe appointees threaten the editorial integrity of Japan’s largest broadcaster.

“Just the knowledge of the character of the governors leads producers and journalists working for NHK to engage in self-censorship,” says Michael Cucek, a Tokyo-based research associate at MIT’s Center for International Studies.

Indeed, NHK did not report chairman Momii’s controversial statements on comfort women until he was grilled by opposition members during a Diet session three days afterward. Nor had news of the debate over Hyakuta’s and Hasegawa’s statements appeared on the NHK news website as of early Friday — despite more than 7,200 messages, mostly negative, phoned in or emailed to NHK’s headquarters.

Members of the opposition have called for the appointees to be replaced, but an Abe spokesman said all had been speaking in their capacities as private citizens and had not violated government policy.

NHK is Japan’s largest television network, funded largely by viewer license fees. It produces round-the-clock entertainment and public-interest programming and operates news bureaus around the world.

The 12 members of NHK’s board serve three-year terms. They are appointed by the Prime Minister with approval of the Diet and exercise authority over NHK’s annual budget and top executives.

Hyakuta is the author of several best-selling books, including The Eternal Zero. Abe and his wife attended a screening of the film version of the book over the New Year holiday. The movie ends with the hero, a pacifist fighter pilot turned Kamikaze, flying his airplane into an American aircraft carrier.

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