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Saturday 24 October 2020

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (24)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (24)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

Freedom of speech is one of those aspects of our modern, thankfully democratic, life that we have come to think of in Britain and Japan as being as natural as sunshine or water, but the merest glance at history tells us that this is far from so. It is also not an easy concept to define and think through, since every society imposes limits on what people can say or write about each other but also, for example, many have laws against hate speech or incitement to violence. Which is why the story of Samuel Paty, the ordinary teacher in the outskirts of Paris who on 16 October was slaughtered by a Russian-born Muslim refugee, is such a sad and tragic one, for his sin was to have taught his pupils about this very subject. It is proof of the parochialism of each country’s news, or perhaps of the dominance of covid-19 and the US elections, that this event, which dominated the media for days on end in France, received surprisingly brief attention abroad. But I was glad, and very moved, to read the beautiful obituary of Mr Paty in this week’s issue of The Economist. As it explained, Mr Paty was attacked for having, as in many previous years, used controversial cartoons from the publication Charlie Hebdo, to teach his class how to think about free speech and expression. Those cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed had lain behind the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in January 2015, and he was trying to help his pupils, who are of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, to work out what might be right and wrong about the publication of such images.
Often, contemporary difficulties with freedom of speech lie in decisions to self-censor for fear of offending people. This week I read what I thought was an excellent article about this, “The Encroachment of the Unsayable” by Bret Stephens in the New York Times, also sparked by Samuel Paty’s murder, in which he reminded readers of past atrocities intended to deter people from free expression, including the killing in 1991 of the Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses”, Hitoshi Igarashi. This is a phenomenon that affects us all. Another contemporary, sadly increasing, threat to freedom of expression has been highlighted this month by our Japan Society member, William Horsley (formerly a BBC Tokyo correspondent), in the book he and Marilyn Clark have written for the Council of Europe called "A Mission to Inform: Journalists at Risk Speak Out". Pegged, as we journalists say, to the murder of the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, three years ago to the very day of Mr Paty’s killing, the book looks at the dangers writers face when trying to hold the powerful to account. It also makes recommendations for what the 47 member states of the Council of Europe should do to protect journalists. One has to remember, however, that some of those governments are themselves guilty of exactly the threats, intimidation and even killings of which the book so rightly warns.
Our webinar this week was also about threats and dangers, perceived or real, but to democracy more than freedom of speech. We were looking at the elections in the United States on 3 November and asking whether trends in American politics and society represent a danger to democracy in the country that has long been known as “the leader of the free world”. The video of the event can be viewed on the Japan Society’s YouTube channel, here. Hitoshi Tanaka, a distinguished former diplomat, explained how critical it is to Japan that the United States should become again a stable and credible ally, for that is what is necessary to prevent China from achieving a kind of hegemony in Asia. David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, took a longer-term, analytical approach, through which he told us that although America had in many ways become less violent, more equal and more tolerant than in the past, the increasing polarisation of US society due principally to inequalities of income, insecurity and education, was putting new and severe strains on the democratic system. We could readily agree that many American political institutions, including the Senate, the electoral college and the Supreme Court, merited reform, but actually succeeding in doing so was likely to be a steeply uphill task.
Next week the Japan Society will not be holding a webinar on current affairs, waiting instead for 5 November and the US election result. But I would like to draw members attention to an event being held on 28 October by our friends at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, which will be particularly pertinent to anyone interested in the future course of the Covid-19 pandemic. Entitled Global collaboration against the pandemic, the event will feature Dr Osamu Kunii of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and Dr Stuart Blume of the University of Amsterdam. A few days earlier I will also have listened to a talk for alumni (like me) of Magdalen College, Oxford, by Dr Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute, which is leading Oxford University’s joint efforts with Astra-Zeneca to test and then produce a vaccine. I hope to be able to report optimistic news in next week’s blog. That talk is being held on the anniversary of the day, in 1688, when King James II had to give up his attempt to force Magdalen College to have a Catholic president, and faculty who had been expelled were restored to their posts. It was an attack, in its day, on academic freedom as well as free speech, the history of which might warm the souls of the six Japanese scholars who were protesting yesterday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan about having been rejected by Prime Minister Suga’s government as members of the Science Council.


* Image: Samuel Paty 1973-2020, © Ville de Conflans-Sainte-Honorine

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