Japan from the inside out

Yasukuni: The movie

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 15, 2008

HERE’S A CASE in which some politicians are getting it right, but for all the wrong reasons.

The case involves the incipient controversy over the documentary film Yasukuni, directed by Li Ying and slated for release on 12 April. The film has become controversial because to make it the producers received a 7.5 million yen subsidy (slightly less than $US 73,000) from the Japan Arts Council, an independent administrative body under the jurisdiction of the Agency for Cultural Affairs. One condition for receiving a JAC film subsidy is the absence of intent to deliver a political message. Some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party think the movie fails to meet that condition, and the party’s Research Commission on Culture and Tradition plans to look into the subsidy system.

The movie, which was 10 years in production, focuses on a master swordsmith who made the so-called Yasukuni sword on the shrine grounds. The Japan Arts Council subsidy comes from a special fund that uses money provided by the Japanese government.

Politicians Object

An association of young LDP members, chaired by lower house representative Inada Tomomi, asked the Agency for Cultural Affairs whether the financial support was appropriate. This prompted the distributor, Argo Pictures, to hold a “special emergency screening” for members of both the ruling and opposition parties, and about 40 showed up to watch.

After the screening, the LDP association met at party headquarters with a different group of young LDP parliamentarians with a long and cumbersome name that doesn’t translate comfortably into English but clearly expresses their aim of encouraging politicians to visit the Yasukuni shrine.

They certainly didn’t like what they saw. Some who attended the meeting objected to the use in the film of statements by two plaintiffs in a suit against former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro for visiting the shrine. The plaintiffs charged in their suit that the prime minister’s visits were unconstitutional.

Further complicating matters is the additional condition that only Japanese films are eligible for subsidies. Upper house MP Nishida Shoji wondered whether the film met that condition because it was a joint production with a Chinese company.

Ms. Inada later commented:

“I don’t feel like critiquing the content of the film because the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but I have doubts that a government-affiliated organization should be providing subsidies to a film that deals with the political topic of the Yasukuni Shrine.”

Incidentally, both the Japan Arts Council and the Agency for Cultural Affairs think they followed the proper procedures for the grant, though a spokesman said there were bound to be different views on the film because it was a documentary.

Of course their views can be dismissed out of hand: they’re trying to justify their decision regardless of the merits of the case because they have to justify their existence. If they don’t have any largesse to hand out for film-making, there’s no reason for them to have a job.

The Real Issue

It’s reasonable to assume that Ms. Inada and the other Diet members who object to the funding do so because they disagree with the opinions they saw expressed in the movie. But would they be as anxious to make this an issue if the people making comments on Yasukuni visits in the film were supporters of those visits?

The opinions–whatever they are–shouldn’t make any difference either way. Those who oppose the Yasukuni visits should also be at the front of the line objecting to any government subsidies for the movie. The failure to object on principle lowers the debate to the level of cheerleading for the home team, which misses the point.

It’s a shame that Ms. Inada didn’t take that thought about Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression further, because that’s the crux of the matter.

The reason the government isn’t supposed to fund political opinions in a movie—or any medium at all—is because it violates the right of free speech and expression for any taxpayer who disagrees with that opinion.

The right of free speech includes more than the right to be able to stand up in a public place and say the government is wrong.

It also includes the right to keep one’s mouth shut and not express any opinion. Presumably, many of the people who would object to politicians visiting Yasukuni would also object to, say, the Tokyo Metropolitan District’s policy of having school teachers sing or play the national anthem. Some school teachers have been suing the TMD government because they think the policy deprives them of the opportunity to exercise their rights by forcing them to express what they don’t believe in.

Is it wrong to make a person sign a loyalty oath? If so, it’s just as wrong to force taxpayers to subsidize political opinions they dislike. After all, the taxpayers don’t have any choice in whether they have to pay the taxes, from which government agencies receive their funds, and the uses to which those agencies put those funds.

In this case, the government is forcing some people to pay for the expression of a political opinion with which they disagree. There are many things a government has no business doing, and that’s just one of them.

It’s unfortunate, but the most important argument in this debate is the one you’re least likely to hear.

28 Responses to “Yasukuni: The movie”

  1. Bender said

    The reason the government isn’t supposed to fund political opinions in a movie—or any medium at all—is because it violates the right of free speech and expression for any taxpayer who disagrees with that opinion.

    I don’t think the government is prohibited from advocating certain views. The U.S. does it all the time. Sometimes straightforwardly, and sometimes through the back door. One example of the latter is “Radio Free Asia”. The government is prohibited from banning or restricting speech, yes.

  2. ampontan said

    Those examples are of a government expressing its views as a government in regard to national policy.

    This is about the government giving free money to individuals who wind up expressing a political view.

  3. Bender said

    This is about the government giving free money to individuals who wind up expressing a political view.

    So it’s OK to fund those that agree with governmental policy? Guys at Radio Free Asia aren’t government agents…so it’s difficult for the Chinese to make much fuss against the U.S. government about RFA advocating free Tibet.

  4. This is a pretty touchy subject, and I can certainly see why some members of the Japanese government are up in arms about this documentary. That said, if the feds botch their displeasure with the documentary like they seem to be botching everything else this diet session, then this will be nothing more than good publicity for the documentary 😕

  5. bender said

    Ampontan, I don’t quite see the difference. The guys at Radio Free Asia aren’t government agents, which makes it difficult for the Chinese government to make much fuss about them…so they block the frequency.

  6. ampontan said

    Try this.

    Also, Radio Free Asia says it is private, but here admits it is government-sponsored and non-profit. It’s part of the same group as Radio Free Europe, which has been around a while. It might be technically a private company, but that sounds like a work-around.

    BTW, Takenaka Heizo wanted to privatize NHK, but Koizumi didn’t think he could pull it off…

  7. Bender said

    I read you link. I think that’s still a minority view, though. Governments all over the world subsidize arts like crazy…I guess it makes lawmakers and ministers feel good.

  8. Governments all over the world subsidize arts like crazy…

    Yes, that is why people get angry when their money is spent on stuff that attacks their beliefs, like the “piss christ“.

    My government in Australia does it too and it annoys the hell out of me.

  9. Overthinker said

    It wouldn’t be so bad if it was for good art (ie art that I personally think is good) but more often than not it is for overpriced chunks of steel that have the aesthetic qualities of a car crash.

  10. Marcus said

    I think subsidizing art containing political opinion is very good – as long as it doesn’t favor one view over the other. If you are gonna subsidize anything at all, that is. Why exclude movies that contain interesting messages instead of just being another Waterboys or the love story “youth film” set in the inaka?

  11. Saito Yoshihisa said

    Some person criticizes. “Yasukuni Jinja Shrine sanctifies war crime persons.” This is wrong.

    After Japan surrendered in 1945, the Allied Powers arrested many war crime suspects, added “winner’s judgment”, and about 1000 people took death penalty judgment in them. Besides this, 3500 Japanese were executed in the Manchuria in the people court. The Russian army restrained 600,000 Japanese army soldiers, gave it cruel forced labor, and 60,000 people died. It is said that there are more victims.

    But, after the Treaty of Peace became effective, the Allied Powers pardoned war crime persons, and released them. The age of Slaughter, destruction and hate ended.

    Japan considers these dead victims the people who dedicated their life in the country by the war. Yasukuni Jinja Shrine mourns for the these War Dead. Needless to say war crime people aren’t considered heroes.

    Vietnam War is often criticized. But, Americans sometimes mourn for the dead soldiers with the Vietnam War.

    It is different from evaluating the history of the war to remember a dead person.

  12. […] contrast, Ampontan argues that this is a case in which “politicians are getting it right, but for all the wrong […]

  13. Chris said


    Small correction: the figure of 7.5 million yen is equivalent to around 73,000 USD, not 7300 USD.

  14. ampontan said

    Thanks Chris. Fixed it.

  15. Aceface said


    Four theaters(three in Tokyo,one in Osaka)decided NOT to show the film.That makes there will be no screening in the theater for “YASUKUNI” in Tokyo.Right wingers black-vanning around the theater were behind the change of the minds,sources said.

    Truely embarrassing.This is a challenge to the freedom of speech.

  16. tomojiro said

    “Four theaters(three in Tokyo,one in Osaka)decided NOT to show the film.That makes there will be no screening in the theater for “YASUKUNI” in Tokyo.Right wingers black-vanning around the theater were behind the change of the minds,sources said.”

    Really ridiculous situation. I really hope that people like Ms. Inada understand how much damage they do to the image of Japan and the Japanese with their emotionally childish and resentful, heavily loaded with inferior complex activities.

    And the same people want to criticize Chinese and Korean nationalism as “childish”.
    Ms. Inada should look into a mirror.

  17. Aceface said

    This is Inada’s comment.


    She seems to be solely interested about the fund,and not much else.

  18. Ken said

    Movie release seems to have been given up eventually.
    Influence by right wing is not supposed critical so much.
    I wonder whether the reason is profitability so that they only have to release on their account if they relate to freedom of expression.

  19. Durf said

    It’s disappointing to see threats of violence shutting down film screenings like this. I thought the fingerprinting at Narita was supposed to keep terrorism out of Japan . . .

  20. ampontan said

    Some people are calling this a freedom of speech issue, but it’s actually a law enforcement issue. It’s not hard to understand that theater owners want to protect their employees from possible violence, as well as the other tenants of the building.

    How can the police prevent crazy behavior that might happen at any time?

    Then again, some overseas sites stopped showing the film Fitna for the same reasons.

    Hard to resist putting up this statement from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on March 28:

    “I condemn, in the strongest terms, the airing of Geert Wilders’ offensively anti-Islamic film. There is no justification for hate speech or incitement to violence. The right of free expression is not at stake here. I acknowledge the efforts of the Government of the Netherlands to stop the broadcast of this film, and appeal for calm to those understandably offended by it. Freedom must always be accompanied by social responsibility.”

    This guy has a serious problem.

  21. Aceface said

    “Some people are calling this a freedom of speech issue, but it’s actually a law enforcement issue”

    I think these two are the same when it comes to cinema being shown in the public place.

  22. ampontan said

    It would have been shown in a privately owned movie theater on private property. That’s not a public place. The ownership can choose what movies to show and what movies not to show. Choosing not to show a movie does not deprive anyone of free speech.

  23. Ken said

    Likewise, food shop ownership can choose whom to serve and whom not to serve.
    A hero of a blog to have taken down ‘Japanese only’ sign may be sued.

  24. ampontan said

    Ken: Don’t misunderstand, I’m not happy that people just can’t show a movie and let whoever wants to see it see it without threats to their safety. My point is that the issue should be properly identified. It’s the same thing when people say Japanese don’t like Koreans, so they’re racist. You might use any one of several words to describe a hypothetical Japanese who doesn’t like hypothetical Koreans, but “racist” is not a possibility.

  25. Aceface said

    “It would have been shown in a privately owned movie theater on private property. That’s not a public place. ”

    The theaters owned either by privete individual or company that takes money from general public to show a film would both be regulated under 興行場法,thus consider “public”space.

  26. Ken said

    Do not misunderstand. I am neither a nationalist nor even conservatist.
    I do not care whichever the movie is opened or not and a theater in Osaka seems opening.
    Just I dislike those who demand only own right and freedom without knowing those should be judged based on comparative consideration with other’s right and freedom.
    Further more, I hate those who mistake they can become a righteous man if siding the weaker and labeling the opponent as ‘racist’ or so like following site.
    This woman protested to be a short-time-heroin, “Don’t you know how much we are working without pay?” against governer’s suggestion for early meeting.
    But it was revealed that she was not working without pay and she is doing political activities, which is illegal as public servant, in revolution oriented marxist sect.

  27. It seems a the Seventh Art Theater in Yodogawa Ward in Osaka will screen the movie. See the full article here –

    Sounds like a legal issue really, but considering that a decision hasn’t been made yet theater owners should show the movie. This vacuum of inaction by the government lends to this situation.

    Hope the movie comes up north. I’d love to see what all the fuss is about.

  28. Masamune said

    Origin of yasukuni is Izumo Yasugi where is the land living ancient japanese gods.
    Gods of Izumo was getting angry to China such a things.

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