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Thought Control and Indoctrination
Internal Security Laws against Intellectual Freedom
In 1868, the new Meiji government moved immediately to control newspapers and publication in order to suppress support for the former regime. A series of internal security laws, starting with the publishing regulation (1869) and the newspaper law (1873), restricted freedom of speech. These laws carried sweeping provisions such as “To publish indiscriminate criticism of laws or to slander individuals is prohibited” or “To add indiscriminately critical comments when describing government actions and laws is forbidden.” Officialdom sought immunity from criticism by these regulations. The 1875 libel law and newspaper regulations were extremely severe; there was for a time a reign of terror against journalists.
A vigorous nationwide challenge to the new government, the People’s Rights movement, occurred in the 1870s and 1880s. To divide and weaken the movement, authorities dangled the carrot of financial rewards before some of the opposition. Others were harassed, locked up, and silenced. Strict enforcement of ever-tougher internal security laws proved to be the most effective weapon against dissent: regulations on assembly (1880), revision and amendment of the same law in 1882, revision of the newspaper regulation (1883), and a law prohibiting the disclosure of petitions to the throne and the government (1884). Freedom of assembly and association were also severely restricted. The People’s Rights movement was destroyed, and political activity of any kind became extremely difficult.
But the People’s Rights activists did achieve their immediate objective: the establishment of an elected parliament. The government announced in late 1881 that a constitution providing for an elected assembly would be drafted by 1890. The dissidents had demanded that the new constitution include guaranteed political rights. Draft constitutions prepared by the left wing of the Jiyūtō (Liberal party) contained absolute guarantees of intellectual freedom, academic and educational, and of speech. The People’s Rights movement was a bid for a national assembly, a sharing of governmental power, and simultaneously a struggle to establish freedom of expression and basic human rights. Its failure aborted the drive for freedom of speech. After crushing the movement, the government secretly and arbitrarily drafted the constitution and promulgated it on February 11, 1889. There was no popular participation in the process; the emperor presented it to the people as an “imperial gift.”
The Meiji Constitution did not guarantee basic human rights. Freedom expression was recognized only “within the limits of the law.” The liberties granted in the constitution could be virtually abolished by subsequent laws. Restrictions soon tumbled from the government’s authoritarian cornucopia. Freedom of publication was affected by the Publication Law (1893) and the Newspaper Law (1909); freedom of assembly and association by the Assembly and Political Organizational Law (1890) and its successor, the Public Order Police Law of 1900; and intellectual freedom by the lèse majesté provision of the criminal code and by the Peace Preservation Law (1925). Movies and theatrical performances were strictly controlled by administrative rulings rather than by laws passed by the Diet. Thought and expression were so circumscribed that only a small sphere of freedom remained.
The internal security laws were primarily intended to prevent discussion or factual reporting about three areas the authorities deemed sensitive: the monarchical system and public order, the dignity of the imperial family, and public morals. An additional objective was control of information about military and diplomatic affairs. The Peace Preservation Law was enacted to suppress socialist ideas and the socialist movement. Later it was used against other ideas that displeased those who ran the state.
The Meiji political system gagged and blindfolded the populace. Denied the basic facts and a free exchange of opinion on the major issues of state and society, the public could hardly participate in charting Japan’s future. The sensitive areas noted above were stated in the law as vague categories; they could be interpreted broadly and stretched to trap the dissident. Any major contemporary issue might fall under one of the dangerous categories. There was always the fear that newspapers, other publications, and public speeches would be prohibited by an arbitrary police ruling. No appeal was possible against police harassment. Scripts of movies and plays were subject to prior censorship and controlled in the same way as publications and public speeches. Furthermore, these internal security laws carried criminal penalties. Under the lèse majesté provision and the Peace Preservation Law, individuals with beliefs repugnant to the government, even if those beliefs were not expressed overtly, could end up in prison.
Of course, not every idea that incurred official wrath was a valuable contribution to Japanese political life. But a healthy political and social consciousness cannot develop in a society where the exchange of vital facts and ideas is fettered. Leaving other deleterious effects aside for the moment, the impossibility of reporting information essential for informed, independent judgments about war and national security left an intellectual vacuum. It was filled by official militarism, and the public, unaware of the truth or of alternatives, automatically came to support the government position.
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