Japanese scholars fear further assaults on academic freedom

Yoshihide Suga’s rejection of appointees to the Science Council of Japan may be opening shot in ‘symbolic war’, says professor 

October 16, 2020
People stage a rally in Tokyo's Shibuya district on Oct. 18, 2020, against Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's decision not to appoint academics who have been critical of the nation's security and anti-conspiracy legislation to  the Science Council o
Source: Getty

Academics fear the decision by Japan’s new prime minister to reject six nominees for the country’s science council is the opening shot in a “war” on academic freedom.

Yoshihide Suga’s interference in Science Council of Japan (SCJ) appointments, normally a rubber-stamp procedure, has led to protests, a petition with more than 140,000 signatures and even celebrity tweets.  

The SCJ has 2,000 elected and 210 appointed members, half of whom rotate every three years. Of the 105 recommended new appointees, all were approved except for six experts in law or the humanities, some of whom had commented previously on controversial legislation.

Ryuichi Ozawa, one of the six and a constitutional scholar at the Jikei University, told a protest that “this is an issue involving not only Japan’s academia but the entire populace as well. We should never turn over to the government the independence of the science council or the right to select members that is based on sovereignty that lies with the people.” 

Takehiko Kariya, professor in the sociology of Japanese society at the University of Oxford, told Times Higher Education that Mr Suga’s move was “politically symbolic” and could have a chilling effect.

“The council’s standpoint is not only scientific but also political. That’s why there’s been such backlash by the public, scholars and academic associations,” he said.

The outcry is explained by Japan’s carefully guarded academic freedom, which is protected in its post-war constitution, and by the backdrop to the SCJ’s foundation in 1949.

“The SCJ…was established in the post-war period in the spirit of academic freedom and freedom of speech, as the country did not want to repeat the situation we had during wartime,” Professor Kariya said.  

He added that Mr Suga’s move was “a symbolic war. It’s very serious.” He also said it was possible that Mr Suga had “miscalculated the level of criticism”.

Mr Suga, the first leader to reject SCJ appointees since the current process was set in 2004, has addressed the criticism only once. “It has nothing to do with academic freedom. Isn’t that obvious no matter how you look at it?” Mr Suga told local journalists

He added that the SCJ is a government organisation with a roughly ¥1 billion (£7.3 million) annual budget, and that its appointed members become public servants.

Shigeki Uno, a University of Tokyo professor and one of the declined appointees, said that “no matter whether [I am] nominated or not, I will continue my research activities based on my academic beliefs. As a political scientist, I will continue to speak from an academic standpoint about the daily changes in politics.

“I believe in the potential of Japan’s democracy as my academic belief,” he continued. “That creed is not shaken by this matter. The greatest strength of a democratic society is its ability to be open to criticism and constantly modify itself. I am confident that that ability will continue to be trained and developed.”

Juichi Yamagiwa, president of Kyoto University and the outgoing head of the SCJ, said during the council’s general meeting that “the appointment refusals without any explanation will greatly affect the council’s existence”, the Mainichi Shimbun reported.

Professor Kariya of Oxford said it would be difficult to tell what the longer effects might be. “It could be a more substantive threat to academic freedom in the future, or it could just be political performance.”


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