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'Anti-Japan' criticism hits film director, researchers who keep gov't at arm's length

Film director Hirokazu Kore-eda talks about "anti-Japan" criticism leveled against him in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun on June 20, 2018. (Mainichi)

Criticism accusing certain film and research projects as "anti-Japan" because they try to distance themselves from the government's position is on the rise recently, and one of their targets is Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Japanese film director who won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May for his film "Shoplifters."

Kore-eda came under fire after he announced his intention to refuse an invitation from Yoshimasa Hayashi, minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, to come to the ministry to celebrate his success at the festival. Hayashi had made the proposal during his Diet testimony in June.

In a message posted to his website, Kore-eda said that turning down the invitation was "the right thing." In the post dated June 7, he also revealed that he had turned down similar requests from local authorities.

"Reflecting on the past, when the film industry became united with the 'national interest' and 'national policy,' I tend to think that keeping a clear distance from government authority is the right thing to do," he said in his message.

Kore-eda also mentioned his gratitude for a 20 million yen grant from the Agency for Cultural Affairs, an external bureau of the education ministry. But his statement triggered a wave of verbal attacks such as, "It is disrespectful of him to use state funds and say those things," and, "The film is anti-Japan."

Kore-eda responded, "I don't know if (the critics) failed to read my message, or intentionally misread it, but the criticism just escalated, with people saying things like, 'This is anti-Japan' or, 'Go back to South Korea.'"

The agency grant, explained the film director, was not paid out of the pockets of government officials, but from taxpayers' funds. "I understand it as redistribution (of resources) to diversify the world of films," he said. Regarding the criticism that he is "anti-Japan," Kore-eda offered this analysis: "If you think of culture as something that transcends the state, then you understand that cultural grants don't always coincide with the interests of the state. Making the world prosperous doesn't always connect directly with making Japan prosperous. I guess this way of thinking (of not focusing too much on national interests) invites those 'anti-Japan' remarks."

In the film "Shoplifters," members of a struggling "family" survive by shoplifting and stealing, but develop deep emotional bonds among themselves. Society, however, simply dismisses them as criminals. Kore-eda sees a similarity between society's view of the shoplifters depicted in the last part of the film, and the recent criticism against him and his film. "Perhaps, unfortunately, that is a contemporary aspect of the film, made visual by the controversy," he says.

Some people question his statement that he is distancing himself from government authority when the Cannes festival, which gave him the honor, is organized by the French government.

On this point, Kore-eda argued that major international film festivals including Cannes, even when governments are sponsors, give priority to the interests of film culture over national interests. "They share the value that governments foot the bill but remain silent" on film selections at those events, he says.

So what is the stance of senior government officials on the issue in Japan? They sounded positive about Kore-eda's success, but perhaps not in the way he wished. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the film winning the top prize would "boost overseas expansion of Japanese content." Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once addressed the Tokyo International Film Festival, "The content industry is a main pillar of the Japanese economic growth."

Kore-eda responded, "Films are not 'content.' Film is also referred to as 'cinema,' and movies are not a means to gain hard currency from overseas but a form of art. The thinking that values national interest and economy more than culture is foreign to film festivals." The director is concerned that a combination of films and national interest will give birth to movies promoting state policies.

Pressure on researchers of Korean forced laborers under Japan's rule

Meanwhile, "anti-Japan" furor has engulfed grants-in-aid for scientific research known as "kakenhi" academic subsidies, distribution of which was determined by an education ministry affiliate. Ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mio Sugita attacked some of the studies on the forced labor of Korean workers during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 through 1945. During a House of Representatives Budget Committee hearing on Feb. 26, she slammed the research as "anti-Japan propaganda funded by kakenhi."

This phenomenon became particularly visible after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power, says Takashi Odajima, a popular columnist. "A limited number of lawmakers and online rightists criticize and slap 'anti-Japan' labels on those researchers," he explains, while taking a condescending attitude toward their targets to make them feel disgusted and impress their "superiority" on observers. It is impossible to have reasonable discussions with them, says Odajima, "but rebutting them will help maintain a normal space of discourse."

The controversies over Kore-eda and the government grants remind Masanori Tsujita, a historian of modern Japan, of prewar nationalist Muneki Minoda. Minoda attacked liberal academics such as Tatsukichi Minobe, a constitutional law scholar who argued that even the Emperor, who was deified during the prewar period, was only an "organ of the state." Minoda's argument drew support from politicians and the military. "Strong and sensational words such as 'serving the country' or 'disrespectful' that incite the masses were used to deny scholarship or expression," said Tsujita. Those expressions were long sealed off after the war, but their recent resurgence gives a fresh impetus for attacking others, according to the historian.

Tsujita emphasized that to avoid undue influence from "anti-Japan" arguments, people should bear in mind the importance of civil society and the public sphere where knowledge and culture benefit its members.

(Japanese original by Satoko Nakagawa, General Digital News Center)

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