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“Southern All Stars” apologize, pundits question freedom of expression in Japan

  • January 28, 2015
  • , Mainichi
  • Trending@Japan

When Japan’s legendary pop/rock band “Southern All Stars” made a surprise appearance on NHK’s year-end music program “Kohaku Uta Gassen” on December 31, no one in the group could have imagined that they would become such a hot topic in Japan’s social media arena. While the group’s first appearance on the national program in 31 years was big news in itself, the behavior of Keisuke Kuwata, the lead singer, drew heavy criticism particularly from the “netouyo” right-wingers on the Internet because he wore a fake Hitler mustache and sang a song titled “Peace and Hi-Lite,” which was interpreted by many as anti-Japanese. The song, which was first released in August 2013, expresses what could be interpreted as criticism of Prime Minister Abe amid Japan’s heightened tensions with China and South Korea. The lyrics include: “I saw on the news that our neighbors were irritated. No matter how much dialogue we hold, it seems that the argument doesn’t change… A naked king rules the world after waging a war for a convenient cause. It is insane. He should have learned a lesson from the 20th century. It only fuels the smoldering fire.” Kuwata also caused a stir when he changed the lyrics of his song during a live concert on December 28, which was attended by PM Abe and his wife, and sang: “It’s ridiculous to dissolve the Lower House!”

The criticism against the group apparently erupted during the year-end live concert, when Kuwata pulled out a Medal with Purple Ribbon he received from the Japanese government last year from his jeans pocket and jokingly tried to auction it off. The concert was aired live by the WOWOW satellite broadcasting pay TV station, and the criticism against the singer spread instantly on social media platforms. Mainichi (1/26) wrote that while some defended Kuwata by saying that such acts could only have been performed by Southern All Stars because it has enjoyed overwhelming success for more than 35 years, many others posted critical comments such as: “Just because you are in the entertainment business, it doesn’t mean you can do anything you want.” According to the paper, about 40 people, including members of a conservative group, gathered in front of the office of the pop group’s agency on January 11 to protest Kuwata’s behavior. Subsequently, Kuwata and the agency jointly issued a statement on January 15 apologizing for Kuwata’s “lack of sufficient consideration.” Kuwata also expressed “sincere apologies” during a radio program on January 17.

It is extremely rare for a big-name artist like Kuwata to apologize for his behavior, and some people are beginning to question the group’s decision to immediately apologize in the face of protests. Commentator Hiroki Azuma said on Twitter: “[Southern All Stars] has set a precedent in which the political views of a Japanese artist can be overturned by protests alone.” Journalist Koichi Yasuda said in an interview with Mainichi: “People posted messages saying the group is anti-Japanese just because they didn’t like its behavior.

By labeling the group as anti-Japanese, they began to regard the group as an ‘enemy’ and to attack the group. They haven’t written any clear reasons, and it appears as though they are just using this as an outlet for their uncertainty and frustration. It resembles exclusionism, but they are not aware that they are part of it. It is a pity that Kuwata and his agency apologized. They may have wanted to play it safe, but they instead sent the wrong message that they can’t stand up to pressure.”

Sankei Express (1/18) wrote that a veteran record label official said one of the reasons for Kuwata’s apology was his agency’s desire to minimize the impact on its business, but he also thinks the recent terrorist attack against a French weekly was another factor. The official reportedly said: “Protests could escalate into an incident. It reflects the atmosphere of the times.” Commentator Naoya Fujita pointed out that the influence of the Internet has become so strong that it has become possible for ordinary people to apply pressure on freedom of expression. He said: “It is a difficult time to live for people who want to express themselves. A big-name artist like Southern All Stars gave the impression that it succumbed to pressure. I am concerned that this will have a negative impact on the group’s future activities.” Another music writer said: “Ever since folk music died out, there are few musicians who sing political songs in Japan today. This is all the more reason why I want Kuwata to continue to sing about peace and politics.” Sympathy for Kuwata appears to be spreading, as some people are using hashtag #JeSuisKuwata, mimicking the slogan “Je Suis Charlie,” to express support for the artist and freedom of expression.

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