The New York Times has a front-page article on recent efforts by Japan’s far right to keep theaters from screening The Cove, the Oscar-winning documentary about dolphin slaughter and the consumption of mercury-contaminated dolphin meat in Japan.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the film, and this post isn’t so much about the film itself as it is about the very creepy power that a small number of Japanese nationalists have to suppress free speech. If you’ve ever spent time in Japan, you’ve likely seen some far right presence in the form of black vans with rising sun flags painted on the side, blaring nationalist propaganda from loudspeakers at major train stations or along the streets of certain neighborhoods. In a nutshell, Japan’s far right movement seeks to suppress any discussion of Japan’s role as an aggressor in World War II (including the colonization of Korea, sexual slavery [Korean ‘comfort women’], and the rape of Nanking), demands the return of the northern Kuril Islands to Japan from Russia, promotes whaling as a mark of Japanese tradition and pride, promotes Yasukuni Shrine as a shrine to war heroes (despite the fact that several class A war criminals are honored there and official visits to Yasukuni always provoke national outrage in Korea and China), and condemns any criticism of the Japanese royal family. Despite their relatively small numbers, they wield considerable power in a country that shies away from public confrontation. The far right has strong ties to organized crime and to certain powerful businesses, and they often exert their authority by threatening to disrupt shareholder meetings with ugly scenes, a threat that often seems to work. When displays of disorderly conduct aren’t enough, things can turn violent–as the NY Times article points out, in 1960 a socialist lawmaker was assassinated by a right-wing sympathizer, and as recently as 2006 a rightist burned down the house of a member of Parliament after he criticized prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni shrine.
The far right’s campaign against The Cove mirrors similar campaigns against films about Yasukuni shrine and the rape and murder of Chinese civilians in Nanking, but it seems to be getting a lot more attention, perhaps because a) the film won an Oscar, and b) this time it’s about more than politics. The central issue in The Cove isn’t just the slaughter of dolphins, it’s the fact that dolphin meat, which contains dangerously high levels of mercury, is often sold in Japan and labeled as whale meat. Residents of Taiji, the fishing village that is the subject of The Cove, were also found to have abnormally high levels of mercury in their hair. Even though at the moment not a single theater in Japan is showing the film, public interest in toxic food may eventually trump the power of the far right.
Or maybe not. Having seen the power that a small number of extremists hold in Japan, I’ve often wondered what it would take for anyone to legitimately challenge the far right. Perhaps the most baffling part of the whole situation is that fear of the far right doesn’t really stem from a fear of violence (though that’s certainly a legitimate fear), but from a fear of public yelling and screaming. When it comes to controversial art, the idea that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” doesn’t really seem to hold water in Japan. Theater owners have openly stated that they’ve chosen not to show the film out of concern that angry protests would bother their neighbors. The far right are essentially able to dictate what the public sees and doesn’t see by threatening to be angry and obnoxious.
Things get a bit more complicated with The Cove, which, despite its Oscar-winning status, has been criticized for being overly sentimental and for biased editing, which might explain why activist Rick O’Barry has recently been focusing much more on the mercury problem than on the dolphin-killing problem. (I’ve always thought that campaigns to save dolphins and whales focused a little too much on the cuteness factor. When actress Hayden Panetierre unsuccessfully tried to block a Japanese fishing boat from killing dolphins, she cried afterward that the dolphins were “like teddy bears in the water.” Should we really be deciding which animals get saved based on how cuddly they look?) Some have commented that activists who are 100% in favor of people’s right to see the film don’t necessarily want to present themselves as pro-Cove, given the film’s flaws. I felt similarly about The Golden Compass, which the Catholic church managed to do a good job of suppressing–I was furious that anyone would try to keep people from seeing the film, but the film itself was crap (and so bland in its portrayal of anything resembling religious persecution that I can’t imagine even the most devout Catholic being offended by it). It’s hard to get on your soap box and demand that people see a film in support of free speech when the film itself isn’t that great.
In the end, though, I genuinely hope that people in Japan will at least have the opportunity to see The Cove and make up their own minds about the issues it presents. Fear of violence is nothing to take lightly, but fear of embarrassment shouldn’t prevent the Japanese public from having full access to any and all films.