A university president who publicly supported Prime Minister Abe’s defence policy has lost his job. The news has led to a debate about freedom of speech and highlighted the divisions within Japan over the sensitive issue of national security.
Koji Murata, 51, a professor of political science, was until recently the president of Doshisha University in Kyoto Prefecture. In the summer of 2015, he was invited to Tokyo to give his views on controversial proposals concerning defence and security, which Mr Abe was trying to bring into law.
During his testimony before a committee of MPs, Mr Murata said the security legislation proposed by Mr Abe was necessary for Japan. This caused anger among many of his colleagues from Doshisha. More than people from the university signed a petition denouncing Mr Murata’s comments.
The petition said “we are ashamed from the bottom of our hearts that despite [the nature of] the legislation, the professor who serves as the president publicly expressed support for the bills.”
When Mr Murata stood for re-election last week, he lost the vote and was replaced by a candidate who had criticised him.
As in the US and Europe, it is common for university staff in Japan to be openly critical of government policies. For example, Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at Doshisha uses the phrase Stupidnomics to pour scorn on Mr Abe’s economic policy.
Professor Hama is often quoted in the international media as she speaks perfect English and has a dynamic term of phrase. I interviewed her many times for the BBC.
Support for Mr Murata came from the Wall Street Journal. The paper commissioned an article about the case by Michael Auslin from the right-leaning think tank the American Enterprise Institute. He suggested the university staff curbed Mr Murata’s freedom of speech by removing him from office. Mr Auslin said Japanese academics normally accuse Mr Abe of repressing their liberal views.
Events at Doshisha reflect the passion stirred by Mr Abe’s security reforms. There was nearly violence in the Japanese parliament when they were debated earlier this year. The changes allow the Japanese military to fight in defence of allies such as the US even if Japan itself is not directly attacked.
This is based on a reinterpretation of the pacifist clause of Japan’s constitution, which was drawn up by the American occupying forces at the end of WWII. That clause forbids the use of military force except in self-defence.
However, the reinterpretation is a less drastic step than a permanent rewrite of the constitution, which was at one time on Mr Abe’s mind. The security issue has lost him support among many voters.
Mr Murata’s profile has been raised by his dismissal. Given his outspoken views, striking appearance and fashionable clothes, there will now no doubt be plenty of offers for him to exercise his freedom of speech through the media.