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'Cult society' of extreme binaries grew alongside former Abe gov't: Japanese journalist

Freelance journalist Shoko Egawa is shown in this photo provided by herself.

TOKYO -- "The reason does not just lie with the Abe administration, but rather society gave rise to the Abe administration. Careful consideration, self-reflection, and open-mindedness have been lost, and society has grown into something like a cult." So pointed out freelance journalist Shoko Egawa.

    Egawa won an award in 1995 for her series of reporting on the sarin gas attack on Tokyo subway trains carried out by the AUM Shinrikyo cult. The Mainichi Shimbun asked Egawa, who has long attended press conferences at the prime minister's office and continued to keep a sharp eye on transitions in Japanese society under the Abe administration, for a summary of the former Abe government that spanned seven years and eight months and its remaining tasks.

    * * * * *

    Mainichi: What changed during former Prime Minister Abe's tenure?

    Shoko Egawa: First of all, I feel that the act of thinking over matters carefully has been lost from society. There are only a few instances now where we rework our thoughts while listening to the opinions of opposing parties. In the case of politics, discussing matters properly and aiming to reach a consensus among as many people as possible -- even if it is ultimately decided by a majority vote -- is the process to be taken under a democracy. However, an air of intolerance that detests such a process requiring effort and flexibility, and refuses to accept different views has been spreading. This applies to not only the side of the former Abe Cabinet, but also to those who were against the administration. The view, "We won't tolerate Abe's politics," had escalated, and even extreme words and actions like "Die, Abe!" had emerged.

    M: Abe himself used the polarizing term "such people" to describe those who were critical of him.

    E: It must be because he lacks self-reflection and open-mindedness. I think that although Abe is kind-hearted, the range of people who receive his warm regards is limited to individuals he addresses in the first person, such as those close to him, or those who support him. In other words, those he refers to as "us" carries weight for him. So, a structure of "us" versus "them" or "such people" arises. The so-called "such people" are also members of this country, and it seems that he lacks the conception of being in a position that serves the entire public. Even if he received criticism as only valuing members of his inner circle amid issues including controversial cherry blossom-viewing parties hosted by Abe, no signs of self-reflection could be seen at all. Supporters of Abe likewise would not tolerate comments that were the least bit critical of the words and actions of "our Prime Minister Abe." They attack and completely dismiss those who do not completely approve of their side.

    A banner reading, "Quit, Abe!" is seen held up by a crowd in this July 1, 2017 photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter. (Mainichi)

    This point also holds true of people on the other far side of the spectrum who did not tolerate Abe's politics. For example, although I thought highly of the government's decision to not appeal a ruling awarding compensation to families of former leprosy patients, such an attitude of being free and unbiased seems to have been seen as belonging to a looker-on that does not participate actively. You must always completely negate the government's actions. I get called a slang term for "far-left extremist" by Abe's supporters, and also even a "right wing internet troll" by opposing parties, and am bashed from both sides.

    I think that such a trend became noticeable around the time of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Even though the safety of local regions and food differ depending on the amount of radiation, certain people lash out at you and say, "Are you a member of the nuclear power village (a term used to criticize the closed nature of the Japanese nuclear industry)?" This occurred during the reign of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government.

    M: Why did such a trend emerge?

    E: Although Abe played a considerable role in all this, blaming everything on the Abe administration itself may be an attitude lacking "self-reflection." It seems that it is necessary for each party involved to think about whether they too are not responsible for creating some sort of factor that led to the current situation.

    In terms of the nuclear power plants, city residents imposed dangers onto regional areas and received the benefits of electricity. Despite this, when an accident occurs, they do not even have room to self-reflect on their indifference thus far, and assert that "the nuclear power village is inexcusable," as well as suddenly forcing others to choose between the options of "life or electricity." There are also lives that are lost if there is no electricity. These people do not come to such realizations as they do not think over matters carefully. Every time I encounter situations like this where people have fallen into binarism, where they view matters in black and white, such as enemy and ally or good and evil, I feel that society is growing more into a cult.

    M: The term "cult" can be used to point to a group of religious zealots. What do you mean then by "society growing into a cult"?

    E: The philosophy behind cults greatly follows the idea of binarism in that they deem their beliefs as being absolutely right, and whatever goes against it as evil. I had previously thought that this was a characteristic of cults, and that society was something more pluralistic. However, I feel that Japanese society is inching closer to the nature of cults. The AUM Shinrikyo cult manifested these characteristics in the extreme, but it may also have been a canary for society (that foretold of future danger).

    Cults draw people in as they give some kind of "right answer" to those who are unsure about how to go about their lives or those who carry various problems. These issues are supposed to be given plenty of time for contemplation on by mulling them over on your own, or reflecting on them through relationships with other people. However, cults provide people with an answer very quickly. Members reach conclusions quickly without careful consideration. Such a cult-like trend has been spreading more and more throughout society. I'm concerned over why such a situation has happened, and am devastated.

    This March 20, 1995 file photo shows Tokyo Fire Department personnel entering Kasumigaseki Station following gas attacks by the AUM Shinrikyo cult on the capital's subway system. (Mainichi)

    M: What aspect of society can this be attributed to?

    E: I believe that this is a result of various things that accumulated, rather than just a sole cause. However, I sense that the media is one contributing factor. The media tries to convey matters so that they're easy to understand. But, when this becomes the value that is the most prioritized, there are cases where matters that are actually complex and require contemplation become simplified, leading people to think that they really understand them. Making things easy to understand is important, but at the same time can be a dangerous trap.

    Furthermore, a fixation on competing with others can be added to the issue. In debate programs, people who win an argument are applauded, and a great deal of people seem to think that this is what a debate is. There is barely any perception of debate as discussing matters with those who have different opinions and mutually understanding one another, or attempting to incorporate different ways of thinking into your own views. I think it can be said that the Abe administration took advantage of such a trend and expanded it.

    M: From about when do you think that such a change has been seen?

    E: I believe there may have been gradual changes from before the former Abe administration. A move toward this trend may have escalated during the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. I myself noticed that something was off during the Iraq War that began in 2003. I was astonished when then U.S. President George W. Bush criticized the governments of France and Germany that did not support the actions taken by the United States. I thought that deeming those who are not completely in favor of your own views as an enemy -- a way of thinking similar to binarism -- was cult-like, but the leader of the most influential country in the world was acting in this very way.

    In Japan too, young adults who were seized by militant groups in Iraq were met with an outburst of fierce criticism and claims that they were fully responsible for their own actions. Social media, especially tools like Twitter that exchange ideas in a few words, backed up such trends. This movement spread all at once during the former Abe administration's tenure, and I do not know whether it will weaken or become even stronger going forward.

    M: What should be done to recover lost elements of careful consideration, open-mindedness, and self-reflection?

    E: We are in trouble because the answer to that is unknown. People don't even read print media carefully anymore. There are quite a number of articles where you can find out what the writer wants to say by looking at the headline without reading the content. Long articles are not read so much. Articles tend to contain the conclusion in the beginning without describing the process thoroughly. However, I've recently sensed some change as well. There are occasionally long articles, even online, that are read by many. Perhaps a move toward "short and easy-to-understand" reached its farthest limit, and instances of a rebound are arising.

    Shoko Egawa, middle, is seen asking then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, far right, about countermeasures against the novel coronavirus in a press conference at the prime minister's office on May 25, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    For the side that conveys information, a fixed audience is ensured when employing just one of two viewpoints, which enables the media to deliver content at ease, but doing so does not bring about change to society. It is important to try to analyze matters from various angles with a flexible mind, without being biased in favor of either party, rather than just listing them next to each other. But, this cannot be done when you want to be liked or praised by others.

    M: When a press conference at the prime minister's office in February was cut short after 36 minutes, you spoke out and said, "I still have a question," and the government's way of handling the matter invited criticism.

    E: Since the inauguration of former Prime Minister Abe's second administration, he gave great attention to media strategy. He appeared actively in places -- newspapers, television, and even online shows -- where his messages received positive responses from people. During press conferences that are broadcast live on TV, he spoke at great length at the outset, and held a short session for responding to reporters' questions. What's more, he had reporters submit the questions in advance, and sometimes even had government officials prepare the responses for him. Abe never accepted questions from freelance reporters and others whose approaches were unpredictable.

    Abe dealt with matters in the same way as always during the press conference in February, even though it had attracted the attention of many people amid the coronavirus pandemic. Criticism then spread also online, and even he probably realized that he was in trouble. From the next press conference, freelance journalists were called on to ask questions, and more time was allotted for Q&A sessions. Upon seeing this response, I thought that the Abe administration actually was quite concerned about its reputation among normal citizens. Taking that into account, I'm currently reflecting on my own actions and thinking that I should have raised my voice at an earlier stage during these press conferences.

    M: But it cannot be said that exchanges between reporters and Abe deepened after that point, right?

    E: I think that the way the government accepts questions from representative media should be changed. Although the answers to the questions submitted beforehand are all covered by the prime minister's initial speech, reporters from media outlets chosen as a representative ask the submitted question, so the responses become a repetition of what was already said, and the content is not discussed any further. I'd like reporters to point out parts of the initial speech or make further questions based off what they heard. The reporters' abilities will be put to the test, but an air of productive tension will arise only when this is done.

    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announces his intention to step down from his post at a news conference at his office shortly after 5 p.m. on Aug. 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    M: What do you hope to see from the new Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga?

    E: The largest problem of the former Abe administration was that it launched various policy measures, but did not conduct examinations for verification. In terms of the PDCA cycle of plan-do-check-adjust, the administration carried out the "P" and "D," but no "C," and left matters unfinished. The administration's regional revitalization measures as well as its promotion of the active participation of women in society have all ultimately been left only half-done, and the number of female lawmakers who are Liberal Democratic Party officials or Cabinet ministers has not increased. As for dealing with the coronavirus, I would like for the government to make steady efforts to examine why the countermeasures did not go so well, with the help of a third party, and bring to light the whereabouts of the hindrances. I'd like the government to then take effective countermeasures. Suga should be capable of this precisely because he has watched the government from nearby as the former chief Cabinet secretary.

    In addition to the deterioration of his chronic disease, not being able to earn the public's support through measures against the novel coronavirus is likely one reason behind Abe's resignation. I suppose that he wanted to quit while being missed, rather than quitting after working hard until he became worn to pieces. The approval rating of the former Abe Cabinet rose sharply after he announced his intention to step down, and his aim can be said to have succeeded. What brought down the Abe Cabinet was not opposing political parties, those against the Abe administration or the media. I believe that we should be well aware of this. Plus, it's hard to believe that the structure of divisions and antagonism, as well as the trend to detest contemplation and deliberate discussion during the tenure of the Abe administration, will change immediately. I'd like to continue thinking carefully about what can be done to change these aspects while facing up to reality.

    (Japanese original by Asako Kamihigashi, Integrated Digital News Center)

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