Allegations against famed photojournalist Ryūichi Hirokawa send shock waves through the Japanese Left

Japan has yet to have its seismic #MeToo moment, notwithstanding the very well-documented problems faced by women in the workplace and shameful treatment of rape and harassment victims. Though the media has shown some interest in the global phenomenon, to the extent that it was picked as a buzzword of the year in 2018, perhaps a major reason it has not gained ground in Japan is the lack, so far, of a disgrace in the same way that we have seen major figures in entertainment, politics, and culture exposed in America and Europe.

A Weinstein-level watershed may well lie in wait just around the corner, the casting couch being an open secret in the entertainment and “gravure idol” world. (Separately, allegations of contractual coercion have plagued the adult video industry in recent years.) Last spring’s Nobuyoshi Araki scandal seemed about to bring down one of the most celebrated, if controversial and unashamedly sexualised, photographers. But the alleged wrongdoing seemed to fade fast from the public eye, with almost no coverage in the Japanese media, possibly because it was not unexpected of Araki, considering his favourite subject matters.

Illustrious and successful photographers in America have faced accusations in the wake of #MeToo and only the naive would not expect there to be a similar issue within the profession in Japan. Nonetheless, many were left reeling are a story broke of allegations against renowned photojournalist Ryūichi Hirokawa, which first appeared Shūkan Bunshun that hit the newsstands in late December. In the article, seven women accused the 75-year-old veteran of abusing his position to pursue sexual relations with them. According to the allegations, Hirokawa demanded the women have sex with him and pose nude for him.

ryuichi hirokawa photojournalist japan scandal

Besides the obviously painful details of the harassment and worse, it is especially upsetting given Hirokawa’s reputation as a liberal and pioneer in bringing attention to victims of injustice. He is most famous for his association with such issues as Chernobyl and Unit 731, but was also an early advocate of the Palestinian cause in Japan. He moved to Israel in the late 1960s, where he became involved with the local communist movement and then an opponent of Zionism when he witnessed first-hand the suffering of the Palestinians. Back in Japan, he was part of the Palestinian lobby, joining central figures like the Arab scholar Yūzō Itagaki.

Hirokawa subsequently produced prolific photojournalism and writing about the Palestinians, documenting the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut and presenting his evidence at international hearings in Oslo and Geneva. His work recording the testimony of Palestinians and their former villages culminated in the documentary film Palestine 1948: Nakba (2008).

His advocacy of the Palestinian cause also earned him the dubious honour of inclusion in a book, The Jews in the Japanese Mind: The History and Uses of a Cultural Stereotype (1995) by David G. Goodman and Masanori Miyazawa, as an example of the anti-Zionist camp in Japan (along with Itagaki and Makoto Oda). While Goodman and Miyazawa’s framing of Hirokawa (and others) is contentious, it cannot be denied that Hirokawa’s efforts paved the way for more recent Japanese activist-artists like the documentary film-maker Toshikuni Doi. As recently as May last year, Al Jazeera lionised Hirokawa for his Palestinian photojournalism.

As such, these accusations bring a sad and ignominious end to a distinguished career, and are particularly bittersweet as they will overshadow the closure of Hirokawa’s magazine Days Japan. This magazine was first published by Kōdansha until 1990, when it was shut down after overstating information about Agnes Chan’s income. It was then founded by Hirokawa, who had frequently contributed to the earlier incarnation, as an independent magazine in 2004. Showcasing Japanese and global photojournalism, Days Japan has provided a platform for marginal and oppressed voices as well as, in the aftermath of 3.11, ample coverage of Fukushima and the nuclear power issue. It was also an example of one of the few outlets, even in the alternative media, that gave exposure to the anti-2020 Olympic protests and related homeless evictions. Experiencing financial troubles and near-closure in the late 2000s, the magazine had announced in November that it would shutter with the February 2019 issue, following a further decline in sales and lack of successor to carry on Hirokawa’s legacy — one that is now forever tarnished.

Hirokawa’s initial response was to brush off the allegations but he has since issued a formal apology through Days Japan, whose final edition (if it even appears) will apparently feature some kind of response. He was also dismissed from his position as representative director at the magazine and from the board of an Okinawa-related non-profit.

Underneath all the Molotov cocktails, helmets, and street riots as well as the Marxist mantras and transnational aspirations, Japan’s Long Sixties was arguably at least in part an existential process of self-discovery whereby people in Japan confronted the “inner other” — slum workers, Ainu, Okinawans, Koreans, Buraku, migrants — and moved from the prevalent post-war higaisha (victim) paradigm to one of kagaisha (perpetrator). This led to a rise in awareness of ethnicity and race, which had been taboo for the Left due to the heritage of Japanese imperialism with which the nation was still struggling to come to terms. Hirokawa’s trajectory, along with that of such figures as Makoto Oda and Ryū Ōta, is quite emblematic of this shift.

However, this remained a highly patriarchal and androcentric movement, unable to shake off the shackles of misogyny. The New Left was plagued not only by sexism, where the female activists would be tasked with making tea for their male comrades, but also rape, which was a problem within an organisation as well as even a “weapon” deployed during inter-factional conflict. Just one of the most prominent scandals that brought this ugly truth to the surface was the ABCD mondai (ABCD Problem), when four male Fourth International Japan activists were expelled after they were accused of rape on the frontline of the Sanrizuka struggle against Narita Airport in the early 1980s. The incident later led to female activists forming a breakaway group and contributed to the deterioration of the faction, which reformed with a new name and much-diminished influence in the 2000s. As Setsu Shigematsu has shown in Scream from the Shadows (2012), Women’s Lib in Japan developed gradually and quietly in the face of an unaccommodating, if not inimical, leftist culture. And as the Hirokawa case demonstrates, many so-called liberals and progressives have yet to deal with this dimension of the kagaisha that lurks within.


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1 Response to Allegations against famed photojournalist Ryūichi Hirokawa send shock waves through the Japanese Left

  1. Avery says:

    You made a good point regarding the inner transformations of 1968–in my research, I was able to trace a direct cause and effect relation between campus occupation and critical historical study at Tokyo University. On that note, this has absolutely nothing to do with Japan, but the recent film Roma, which is slated to be an Oscar nominee, does an astounding job portraying the global cultural moment of 1968-1972. It illustrates beautifully how elite culture of that time juxtaposed an earnest desire for change with a disdain for the women around the powerful male agents. I’m interested to read Shigematsu’s book because of that new understanding I’ve gained, and I think that context is good for understanding the contradictions in Ryūichi Hirokawa’s life as well.


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