Japan in Uproar Over Censorship of Emperor's Anti-Nuclear Speech

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Why did Japanese TV channels cut Emperor Akihito's address on the one-year anniversary of the Fukushima crisis?

emperor march26 p.jpg

Japan's Emperor Akihito speaks as Empress Michiko looks on at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo / AP

There is a particularly sensitive accusation reverberating through online discussion boards and social media in Japan: that Emperor Akihito's speech on the one year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami was censored on TV for his comments about the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

The 78-year-old Emperor Akihito had insisted on attending the memorial service, though he had been released from the hospital for heart bypass surgery less than a week earlier. While the emperor is technically just a figurehead, he is still deeply revered here. Many Japanese see him a source of guidance in times of political difficulty, which have been many in the last 20 years. His speech was highly anticipated. Unlike Prime Minister Noda, who never mentioned the nuclear crisis in his speech on the anniversary, the Emperor addressed it directly.

As this earthquake and tsunami caused the nuclear power plant accident, those living in areas designated as the danger zone lost their homes and livelihoods and had to leave the places they used to live. In order for them to live there again safely, we have to overcome the problem of radioactive contamination, which is a formidable task.

While this statement may seem more obvious than radical to outsiders, underneath the Imperial-grade Japanese understatement were two ideas that have become quietly explosive. First, he seemed to suggest that the nuclear crisis is not over, a "formidable task" yet to be overcome. This noticeably contradicts the government's official stance that Fukushima has achieved a cold shutdown and, for all practical purposes, the crisis is over.  Second, it implies that it is not yet safe for people to return to areas stricken with high levels of radiation, at least not before the "formidable task" is "overcome." This, again, contradicts the government's position that it is now safe for people to return to almost all areas and that neither Tokyo Electric Power Company nor the national government are obliged to assist in long term evacuations.

It's impossible to say for sure whether the emperor intended to weigh in on two of the country's most sensitive policy debates. Either way, his words have struck Japan's national conversation with a weight that could only be delivered by the emperor himself.

"The emperor's words were like a knife to my heart." tweeted @shun1sta, in a string of comments typical of the public reaction. "He seemed in such pain as well... I can only imagine the determination he felt to say what he did." "It seems to me that the Emperor was doing the most he could do, despite the constraints of his position, to communicate his opinion on the nuclear matter." "Surely the government asked him not to mention the nuclear crisis. He must have fought hard to tell the truth."

It is rare for Emperor Akihito, an accomplished biologist and the world's leading authority on certain species of Gobi Fish, to publicly take sides on any subject other than biology. It is said that his love for the sciences is partly due to the ease in which his colleagues can disagree with him. The reverence he commands in other spheres is so strong that, when it comes to politics, his opinion is considered a constitutionally guarded state secret. His normal silence only adds to the weight of his rare public statements on such matters.

So many Japanese were shocked when TV media began cutting out the emperor's dramatic statement. Live daytime broadcasts of the event contained the whole speech and newspapers printed it in its entirety. But, by that evening, all of the major news programs aired edited versions of the speech without his nuclear comments, which also went unmentioned and undiscussed on the heavily watches news shows. The vast majority of Japanese, who don't watch TV news during the day, missed the comments entirely.

Blogs and chat-rooms quickly filled with angry accusations that TV networks were censoring an important communication by the Emperor to his people at a time when his guidance is most sought.

"Seriously?! They're even going to whack the Emperor's Words? "

"It's so disrespectful for the media to cut the most important part of His Majesty's speech, especially as he delivered it under such physical strain."

"Asahi News cut the Emperor's words just like NHK did!  This must be the Government's work... This is the height of censorship!"

By March 20, nine days after the emperor's speech, outraged Japanese held a demonstration in front of NHK, the State sponsored TV network, protesting the apparent censorship.

In fairness, news programs can't please everyone with their edits, and it would be unfair to accuse censorship at every disappointing broadcast decision. Still, it's hard to imagine why the TV networks would neither air nor even mention the emperor's obviously weighty opinion. Many skeptics in Japan suspect that the country's enormous nuclear energy industry, which is famous for its influence over Japan's politics and which has seen its business come to a near-standstill over public fears, may have played a role. After all, Tokyo Electric is one of Japanese TV's largest sources of revenue, and is tightly linked to the Japanese government, which sponsors some media here.

The incident has also played off Japanese fears, sometimes edging into paranoia, that powerful interests in Japan are withholding important information about the risks of nuclear power. When the Fukushima crisis began last March, the government was aware of both the risks of meltdown and the spread of radiation. Yet it waited days or weeks to make that information public, it says for fear of sparking a mass panic. Because radiation is totally invisible, large numbers of Japanese were unwittingly soaked in it. This reliance on the authorities to tell them when they're a danger, and a lingering fear that maybe the powerful aren't telling them everything, were both raises again by the odd cutting of the emperor's nuclear speech. Whether the skeptics are right or not about censorship, it was a clear reminder that Japan has a serious, and possibly worsening, problem with public trust. As if the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown hadn't brought enough problems already.

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Michael McAteer is a producer and filmmaker who splits his time between Japan, where he was born and raised, and New York.

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