by Patricia Ormsby for the Saker Blog
The Initial News Blitz
In the immediate aftermath of Putin’s announcement on February 24 of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine, Japan’s media instituted a one-sided blitz condemning Russia of a sort that has become familiar to everyone else in the West.1 The blitz appeared to have been well-planned and coordinated in Japan, though it took about a week to eliminate the five-minute Vesti news segment from NHK’s selection of international news sources airing early each morning (this has not been restored since). In the subsequent month a person couldn’t watch any TV for more than 15 minutes without seeing more news on Ukraine or graphic blurbs announcing upcoming documentaries. Talk shows were populated with new, young “experts on Russia,” while well-known, respected experts went absent. These young professors appeared to have no knowledge of the Minsk Accords, for example, though I suspect it was simply made clear to them that the topic was off-limits. The overall impression from the media was that Russia’s incursion into Ukraine was entirely a war of territorial conquest entailing savage, horrifying brutality against innocent civilians.
I do not use social networking services, but the blitz appeared to have been even more intense there, and specifically aimed at women, judging from the effects. Virtually all the women I know in Japan responded viscerally to this propaganda. I witnessed rage at anything that reminded them of Russia. Russian signage installed for the Olympics was blocked off. One friend studying Russian told me she had contacted her teacher in Moscow and told her she could not bring herself to continue her lessons until Russia stopped that nasty invasion. Her teacher explained in tears that she had family in Ukraine. My friend should have realized that there was another side to this story. I explained to her how discriminatory the news on Ukraine in Japan was and the fact no one could really attest to the veracity of all the atrocities we were being bombarded with day and night; still she was just overwhelmed by it.
I can attest as a woman living in Japan nearly four decades that I could not watch the news without feeling that I would be a monster if I didn’t have any sympathy at all for the victims, even if I considered it all unverified and mostly likely misleading. I can’t tolerate such a level of cognitive dissonance, and just flee after a few minutes. My husband and his brother, by contrast, can continue watching with no emotional involvement, just out of curiosity to see how far the authorities will take such obvious propaganda.
Cracks in the Narrative
In contrast to the successful emotional man-handling of the women, virtually all of the men I know in Japan quickly saw through the deception and many, in fact, took umbrage at it. It was men who told me they were sick of hearing constantly about Ukraine. They pointed out how odd the unilateral condemnation of Russia was, considering this was the same sort of action America was constantly engaging in with other small impoverished countries far away that the news otherwise had no interest in. They recognized the attempted manipulation, and what they and an increasing number of women began to see behind it was an anticipated new attempt to rewrite Japan’s constitution enabling it to engage in military actions overseas.
In addition, the talk shows never really managed to shut out pro-Russian views entirely. Prior to the SMO, there had been some positive coverage of Russia in the Japanese media. The knowledge people possessed from before the conflict could not be erased. According to my husband, one commentator noted that Zelensky’s arming of civilians to help fight the invasion rendered the entire civilian population a military target under international law. The public’s perceptions of Zelensky’s role in the conflict changed. The Minsk Accords were brought up in one daytime program, catching one of the young “experts” off-guard. The general perception gradually formed among the public that there was indeed another side to this story.
Russian signage was restored at train stations in April. I have not heard recently of on-line harassment of Russians (or anyone suspected of being Russian, including Ukrainians), which was occurring during the first few weeks of the SMO. Prior to Biden’s recent appearance in Japan, the propaganda increased, but seems to have subsided since then somewhat, though the other day they aired a documentary on what a dictator Putin is.
Shrugging at Official ‘Truths’
Japan has had a long history, including times still within living memory, of life under tyranny. This tyranny has characteristics that distinguish it from European varieties, based on social systems rooted in Buddhism and Confucianism. I won’t go into it here but the result is they’ve inherited ways of coping with tyranny that allow them to lead relatively dignified and meaningful lives. One of these is their concept of “tatemae” versus “honne.” Tatemae literally means “façade,” while honne is composed from hon (main or regular) and ne (sound), and means “real intention” or “true meaning.” They recognize the necessity of the former just so that society can function smoothly without tripping over infelicitous details or long-standing conflicts. That the latter exists in contrast to the former is universally acknowledged. Confucianism gives its blessing to this system, valuing harmony above most other concerns. Everyone puts up their own tatemae and deals with their own honne as they see appropriate.
Of course, this happens everywhere. The difference here is its universal acknowledgement. Dishonest official “truths” are tolerated until they jeopardize things that really matter. Even then, people here are more likely to try to resolve the issue quietly. Japan has to go along with America to a large degree, and as long as the latter does not confront Japan over its sneaky tendency to overlook rules at the local level, they see no reason at all to confront America. And in the matter at hand, what matters to them is not the blatant propaganda or emotional manipulation, but whether or not they as a country can maintain the neutral stance that they have benefited massively from over the past half century.
Left and Right
I have heard that there is a rightward faction in Japan that favors Russia, but have no other knowledge about them. The right wing that I am acquainted with still has a territorial beef with Russia over four of the Kuril Islands https://tass.com/world/1041010?utm_source=yandex.ru&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=yandex.ru&utm_referrer=yandex.ru and as a result no peace treaty has been signed between Japan and Russia in the 67 years since WWII.2 In general, though, Japan’s right wing tends to be isolationist. Shinto, which is largely but not exclusively right wing, is a highly localized religion, and most of the devoted practitioners I know have never been abroad and tend to look down on overseas travel. I attended a meeting of the Fuji Confraternities, a Shugendo sect centered around Mount Fuji, and was pleasantly surprised, given the moral stance inherent to any religion, that not once in three hours did anyone bring up the plight of the Ukrainians.
Japan’s left wing, aside from communist and socialist factions that favored the Soviet Union, strongly favors the US for its idealism and democratic principles. Many of them have traveled abroad, but mostly as part of groups on commercial tours, which are motivated to protect whatever façade will encourage future business. The linguistic distance between Japanese and other languages also makes it hard for them to obtain unfiltered information from abroad. The result is a romanticized view of America and tendency to give credence to Western news sources. My impression is this is true to some extent throughout Asia.
Civic-minded Seeking Knowledge
Given the cracks in the narrative mentioned above, however, there is a growing interest among the civic-minded in Japan, in particular among the left, in hearing about Russia’s viewpoint. I was happy to see a good turnout3 for a lecture by retired Ibaraki University professor Hideo Soga in Mito, Japan, on May 21 to promote understanding Russia’s point of view in the Ukrainian conflict.
In his talk and accompanying handout, Prof. Soga presented content from Putin’s speech to Russia’s citizens on February 24.4 This included the threat from NATO’s easterly expansion since 1990; NATO’s serial aggression against countries without approval through UN Security Council resolutions (Belgrade, Iraq, Libya and Syria); Russia’s inability to reach an agreement with NATO in December 2021 on vital security matters; the situation worsening year-by-year despite Russia being one of the top nuclear nations and possessing many of the most advanced weapons; further threats from NATO to expand into Ukraine, bringing in modern weaponry from nations inimical to Russia; the genocide of ethnic Russians in the Donbass necessitating a military response from Russia in accordance with UN Charter Chapter 7, Article 51; and Russia’s aim to neutralize and demilitarize Ukraine, removing the neo-Nazis, but not occupying the nation.
Prof. Soga described and illustrated NATO’s eastward expansion, gave a rundown of Ukraine’s history, with a diagram showing the percentages of different ethnic and language groups in different parts of Ukraine. He discussed Zelensky’s presidency, mentioning Kolomoisky’s backing and the events since 2014 that led Crimea to rejoin Russia and brought about civil strife to eastern Ukraine and the current conflict, with deep involvement by Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. He explained in more detail the conflict in the Donbass between separatists and Ukraine’s government, mentioning that NATO had turned a blind eye to massacres of civilians and destruction of residential areas by neo-Nazi brigades, in fact abetting it, and that attacks intensified in late 2021. He mentioned the Odessa massacre as well, providing a You-tube link.
He discussed the American Deep State, quoting Mutsuo Mabuchi, former ambassador to Ukraine (2005-2008), who pointed to involvement by Wall Street and the FRB, which had been established in 1912 under President Woodrow Wilson with the authority to issue money. He said these shadowy powers had expanded internationally since then and sought to create a “one world order” through globalization. Mabuchi, he said, considers Biden part of the Deep State.
Finally, Prof. Soga summarized his own views of the situation, saying that the American Deep State (neocons) seeking control over Russia’s assets and enabled by Yeltsin and Russia’s oligarchy, exploited the division between Russia and Ukraine and that Putin’s initial goal was to restore Russia’s assets, which he did by excluding the oligarchy, renationalizing privatized assets and rebuilding Russia’s economy. This, he said, made him enemy number one of the Deep State, whose overriding task became to topple him somehow. This led them to expand NATO eastward, with the Deep State camouflaging its goal of world domination under nice names like globalization and democracy. Putin, he said, was justified in resisting its infringement of nations’ right to independence. For Russia to maintain its independence, a buffer zone, he said, would be necessary, with Russia surrounding itself with friendly or neutral states. At the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, NATO was supposed to have recognized this. He said that far from recognizing these needs, Zelensky’s regime promoted expansion of NATO into Ukraine and was fanning the flames of division between the closely related Russian and Ukrainian ethnic groups. This, he said, justified Russia’s military response.
I note he did not bring up the biological research laboratories or Zelensky’s stated aim for Ukraine to acquire nuclear weapons.
More Work Needed toward Fuller Understanding
I attended Prof. Soga’s lecture with the hope of learning how people in Japan with some degree of receptivity to non-mainstream points of view were perceiving the situation in Ukraine, and I was well rewarded. In the discussion following Prof. Soga’s presentation, I could see that the media blackout of anything from Russia’s point of view had resulted in major gaps in people’s understanding, and I was able to offer up some information in addition to Prof. Soga’s, but I held back to avoid dominating a discussion I mostly wanted to listen in on. They had the impression that Russia was meddling like America does in countries it has no business in, likening it to Japan if it were to intervene in China on behalf of the Uighurs, but Prof. Soga’s presentation went a long way toward correcting that misunderstanding. There was the question of how the Azov battalion could be Nazi if Zelensky was Jewish, in response to which I explained that the victims of the Nazis were not limited to Jews, and described the Soviet Union’s experience in World War II, where for example, my Russian teacher’s mother in Belarus was forced to watch her own husband’s execution by the invading Nazis despite not being Jewish. The ladies attending were also under the impression that Western countries enjoy more freedom of speech than elsewhere. I told them the situation had changed and there is a lot of censorship going on in Europe and America now. They had not heard that before.
That kind of news comes as a shock to people, who will be inclined to return to and believe in more soothing sources, but if they know this dissident idea exists, they may come to see evidence that what I’ve told them has truth.
Overall, the discussion focused on concerns that Japan might be persuaded to become involved in the conflict, and I think even from a global perspective the most important thing for the Japanese is to be alert to that possibility. In light of my conversations with other people in Japan as well, I expect there to be considerable resistance within Japan to being dragged into a conflict with Russia.
It, of course, remains to be seen when push comes to shove from America, if what the average citizen thinks will make any difference anyway.
After the lecture, I had a chance to talk to Prof. Soga, and he asked me if I knew what percentage of America’s budget goes to the military. I didn’t have an exact figure—in the ballpark of “absolutely enormous.” He asked, “Why can’t the American people address this? Why is no one there discussing this? This is the root of all the pressure for a war in Ukraine.” He wondered if, like in Japan, the problem was people are interested in nothing beyond their own narrow familial and social circles. I replied that that was not as much the case in the US as in Japan to focus intensely on one’s own group to the exclusion of all other considerations.5 In America, I explained, the “defense budget” is something no one can criticize from either side of the political spectrum because they’d be seen as opposing a “strong America.” It’s something no one can touch.
1Japan has identified as “Western” since the Meiji Era more than a century ago, when it embarked on modernization and began emulating colonists’ successes rather than becoming another passive victim. In particular, it admired Germany, from where it derives much of its scientific terminology.
2A friend well acquainted with the matter says the politically dominant LDP party has made moves toward a peace treaty, but each time America quickly scuttles it.
3About 20 people. Given what has happened in response to COVID over the past two years, this is big. The Japanese believe in self-restraint for the greater good, so this demonstrates real interest, and the participants will share what they learned with their social circles.
4On YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qS6J-WbTD8 and a Japanese translation of the text is available here: https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20220304/k10013513641000.html I think it is significant that NHK provides this translation, but am also grateful to Prof. Soga for pointing it out. On TV, we typically see Putin frowning and moving his lips while hearing the newscaster give an unfavorable interpretation of what he is saying.
5Thorsten J. Pattberg has catalogued a few of the absurdities this can lead to in his series of articles on Japan (latest here: https://thesaker.is/top-guns-kishida-and-us-biden-showdown-with-russia-and-china/). In addition, Japan has relatively little volunteerism, and social injustices wind up ignored with the victims forced to fend for themselves. That’s a downside. An upside is more stability in society.
Patricia Ormsby has lived in Japan since 1984, where she works as a translator. She led ecotours from Japan to Baikal from 1995 to 2002 and has added Russian, Thai and Indonesian to the languages she speaks in addition to Japanese. She and her husband left Tokyo in 2001 and went rural, where they farm organically. She was certified as a Shinto priestess in 2001.