A brief account of censorship in Modern Japan

By Yo Tong on December 15, 2010
Censorship in progress - Japan's Special Higher Police, or Tokkō. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Japan has a centuries-long history of censorship.

Its origin can be traced back to the Edo period. At that time, the targets of censorship were generally books about Christianity and publications that criticized the Tokugawa Shōgunate. After the Meiji modernization, the Emperor Mutsuhito promulgated the Oath in Five Articles (or the Charter Oath), which started with the clause, “Deliberative assemblies shall be widely established and all matters decided by open discussion.”

However, these discussions were not as open as stated - that is, for the general public. The establishment of a centralized Meiji government only meant the shift of censorship power from the Tokugawa Shōgunate, which had been merely a feudal regime above numerous feudal rulers (Daimyo) throughout Japan, to the newly established constitutional monarchy.

The first censorship rule adopted by the Meiji government was the “Declaration of Grand Council of State” (or Dajōkan-fukoku) in the year 1868. It was regulated that “sales of any new publication or reprint without official permission is strictly prohibited.” One year later, the “Publication Ordinance of 1869” introduced a license system of publication. On one hand, the exclusive business interests of publishing houses were under government protection, yet on the other, the content of publications was subject to stringent control. The ordinance was replaced by the Press Law of 1893: it stated that both the “publication of documents and pictures” as well as “magazines with sole contents of academics, arts & crafts, statistics and advertisements” would become targets of censorship.

There are a couple of points worth emphasizing regarding the Press Law. First, according to article 18 and 19, publications that “disrupt public peace order”, “corrupt public morals” as well as “diplomatic, military and any other government secret” were regarded as violations of the law. However, these definitions were vague and allowed plenty of room for interpretation. Thus the scope of censorship was greatly extended thanks to varying interpretations by the authorities. Second, article 20 stated that, “foreign publications of documents and pictures“ were also subject to censorship and, in the case of translation, “its translator is regarded as the author of the text.”

In addition to the Press Law, the Libel Law of 1875 and the Newspaper Ordinance – which was replaced by the Newspaper Law in year 1909 – also played a role in censorship. Under article 1 of the Libel Law, “regardless of the truth or falsity in supposed facts, any person who openly alleges information regarding the reputation of other persons, or spreads such information as facts” was in violation of the law.

It is generally believed that the legislation was one of the countermeasures against Freedom and the People's Rights Movement started in the 1880s. According to the Newspaper Law, “servicemen on active duty or being recruited” were forbidden from being appointed as publishers or editors of newspapers, yet in article 27 it was stated that the Minister of War, the Minister of Navy as well as the Minister of Foreign Affairs had the power to ban or restrict any report regarding military or diplomatic affairs. Moreover, same as in the Press Law, reports that were deemed “disruptions of public peace order” or “corruption of public morals” were subject to punishment.

This stringent media control was allowed and promulgated legally in 1889, twenty years after Japan’s “modernization” by means of the Meiji Restoration. According to the constitution, “The Empire of Japan shall be reigned over and governed by a line of Emperors unbroken for ages eternal.” The Emperor was “sacred and inviolable,” and His rights included sanctioning and promulgating laws, executing them and exercising “supreme command of the Army and the Navy.” Also according to the constitution, his “subjects” could enjoy inviolable “secrecy of the letters […] freedom of religious belief […] liberty of speech, writing, publication, public meetings and associations.” They were subject to constraint “in the cases mentioned by the law […] within limits not prejudicial to peace and order” or “within the limits of law.”

These, as shown above, were arbitrary at best.