Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Son of prewar Japanese scholar warns gov't intervention in science repeats history

Takeshi Shinmura is seen in this photo taken in 1956 when he was a professor at Nagoya University. He worked as a peace activist during his postwar career. (Image taken from "Midori no Ki: Shinmura Takeshi tsuiso," published in 1995 and edited by the Shinmura Takeshi compilation publishing committee)

KYOTO -- Over six months have passed since Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga controversially refused to appoint six scholars to the Science Council of Japan in October 2020. The six rejected researchers have still not been appointed, and academic freedom in Japan remains shaken.

    The Science Council of Japan is a representative organization of the community of Japanese scientists that makes policy recommendations independent from the government. In Japan, academic freedom has repeatedly been threatened over the course of history. Yasushi Shinmura, 74, a Yokohama resident whose father was imprisoned for nearly two years in prewar Japan when the government suppressed academics, is increasingly alarmed by the current state of affairs, which reminds him of the country's dark past.

    Shinmura's father, Takeshi Shinmura (1905-1992), was a French literature scholar. Takeshi was the second son of Izuru Shinmura, a linguist known for compiling the Japanese dictionary "Kojien." Takeshi graduated from No. 3 High School in the prewar Japanese education system and Kyoto Imperial University (both predecessors of Kyoto University) in 1930. According to his own writing following the end of World War II, he considered himself to be one of the youths who enjoyed "Japan's freest and best time since the Meiji Restoration (in the late 1860s)." Japan, however, began to move into a new age.

    In 1933, when Takeshi was teaching as a professor at Doshisha University's prep school in Kyoto, an event known in Japanese history as the "Takigawa incident" occurred at his alma mater, in which the government rejected an individual researcher's work and intervened in the university's autonomy. Then Education Minister Ichiro Hatoyama criticized Kyoto Imperial University's criminal law professor Yukitoki Takigawa as teaching Marxism and demanded he be removed from his position. Around this time, the government's suppression of academics and thought policing became entrenched.

    In this 1950 photo, linguist Izuru Shinmura, Yasushi Shinmura's grandfather, is seen to the left in the front row during his 50th wedding anniversary celebration with his wife. The fourth from the left is Takeshi Shinmura, and the child in the front row is Yasushi. (Photo courtesy of the Izuru Shinmura memorial foundation)

    In Europe, meanwhile, militarism and totalitarianism were spreading, with the formation of the fascist Nazi government. In 1934, Takeshi joined a coterie involved in a self-published magazine titled "Bi Hihyo" (renamed as "Sekai Bunka" in 1935). The magazine was started by scholars including aesthetician Masakazu Nakai. While still teaching, Takeshi introduced the anti-war, anti-fascism movement led by literary figures and other activists in Europe. In the process, he worked towards "the protection of academic freedom and freedom of thought."

    Early on the morning of Nov. 8, 1937, Takeshi was taken to Gojo Police Station from his home in Kyoto on suspicion of violating the now-defunct Peace Preservation Law. He was subsequently found guilty of planning to expand the Communist Party, which was illegal at the time, and was handed a three-year prison sentence, suspended for five years. From his arrest until he was released in August 1939, Takeshi spent one year and nine months in detention.

    Amid this suppression of academic freedom, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident occurred in July 1937 and Japan began invading China, which ultimately led to the Second Sino-Japanese War. In 1938, the National Mobilization Law came into effect, and Japan plunged into the Pacific War.

    The suppression of academics was reflected in the bullying of Takeshi's child. Yasushi's older brother Toru, who died in 1984 at age 48, told magazines and in other publications that he was "bullied to the limit" by the children of military personnel at school after the Pacific War broke out.

    Yasushi Shinmura, the second son of French literature scholar Takeshi Shinmura, reads the interrogation report on his father who was arrested and detained on suspicion of violating the prewar Peace Preservation Law, in Kyoto's Kita Ward, on Oct. 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Yoko Minami)

    As Yasushi was born after the war was over, he doesn't know in his bones what it was like at the time. He says his father was "a man of few words" and didn't speak of his experience much to his children, but he wrote down his thoughts.

    According to Takeshi's notes, while he was "well aware that many prominent anti-Nazi intellectuals and cultural figures had been arrested, persecuted and banished, or forced to go into exile," he did not think even for a little that he would be detained. He wrote that after he admitted to the high policing unit known as Tokko, or the thought police, that he was a communist during interrogation to match their story, he felt "extremely ashamed" when he faked "reconverting" following his rejection of the philosophy -- highlighting the harshness of the Tokko interrogation.

    These sentiments hit home as Yasushi was going through items left at his father's house with his sisters in 2014 before the building was demolished. They stumbled upon the interrogation report compiled during the preliminary hearing of his case. The report came in as two sets of documents, each consisting of several hundred pages. In his writing, Takeshi claimed his innocence, saying that crucial parts in the interrogation report for the preliminary hearing were "completely false." Yasushi said he felt the absurdity of the situation.

    Today, whenever the government's intervention in the appointment of Science Council members and its responses are reported, Yasushi thinks about his father. "What happened when academic freedom was infringed upon? My father would tell us to have a keener sense of danger," Yasushi said.

    The kanji for Yasushi's name was taken from the name of philosopher Kyo Tsuneto, who left Kyoto Imperial University to protest the Takigawa incident and became the first president of Osaka City University.

    There's a saying Yasushi's father used to repeat which left a strong impression on him: "Freedom is not about being able to do what you want to do; it's about being able to do what you should do as a person."

    (Japanese original by Yoko Minami, Kyoto Bureau)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media