On May 3, Japan will mark Constitution Day under extraordinary circumstances not seen in the postwar period. Many Japanese will want to commemorate the day that the Constitution took effect on May 3, 1947. But this year, they are under strong pressure to refrain from going out as much as possible and meeting friends face to face.
May 3 will also mark the 33rd anniversary of a fatal shooting in The Asahi Shimbun’s Hanshin Bureau in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture. On that day in 1987, a masked gunman stormed the bureau and opened fire with a shotgun, killing a reporter and injuring another.
It was a heinous act of violence that brutally rejected the values and principles upheld by the Constitution, which demands respect for individuals and guarantees basic human rights.
As an Asahi Shimbun reporter, Tomohiro Kojiri, the 29-year-old journalist killed in the attack, wrote many articles about plays and theater, which were his passion.
Each May 3 in the years following the attack, members of theatrical companies and citizen groups who were interviewed by Kojiri have held a special event of performing arts in front of Amagasaki Station of Hanshin Electric Railway Co., the main train station in the area that was his beat.
The annual event has been an occasion for these individuals to perform short plays, songs and dances while mourning for the victim. Their performances have been inspired by a determination to protect the fundamental values underlying our society, such as freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of assembly and speech and freedom of expression.
But this year, the event has been canceled due to the new coronavirus outbreak. “We really feel frustrated,” said Midori Matsunaka, a freelance English instructor who has been involved in organizing the event for many years. “We have kept speaking up instead of being silent (by using the event),” she explained.
Another May 3 event that celebrates freedom of speech and is organized by the labor union for employees of The Asahi Shimbun has also been canceled. But the union plans to use its official Twitter account to post advance interviews with the four commentators who were to serve as panelists for the event. It is an attempt to provide an opportunity for people to share their ideas and thoughts about the issues raised here under the current dire circumstances. Social media can be a great tool for such joint endeavors aimed at promoting common causes without having to physically gather.
The current situation is a reminder of the value of meetings, not just the events related to the attack. The same can be said of events to mark the 100th May Day in Japan and of various meetings to discuss the Constitution, whether they be organized by camps for or against constitutional amendments.
We have rediscovered the value of even meetings such as those that involve condominium residents’ associations and neighborhood associations, which are usually seen as a nuisance. Now that it is difficult to hold such gatherings, we recognize afresh the benefits they offer as opportunities for people with common interests to get together and exchange views and opinions.
One worrying trend is emerging in this nation probably because of fears about becoming infected with COVID-19. It seems that a growing number of Japanese are becoming more suspicious and developing a tendency to monitor other people’s behavior and criticize harshly even the slightest departure from guidelines for avoiding infection.
There is also a troubling trend toward denouncing the media for its tendency to criticize and question the administration’s policies and actions, thereby “making things harder for the government in such an emergency.”
If “jishuku” (voluntary restrictions) turns into “ishuku” (feeling intimidated), strangling the spirit of tolerance and healthy criticism in society, the future of our society will be bleak even if the outbreak is contained.
On May 3, we all need to reconfirm the importance of exchanging our thoughts with others, be it via personal computers or smartphones, or while keeping an appropriate distance from each other and wearing masks.