close x


4 – The Look of Silence: A Loud Entry in 2016 Oscar Contest, Elizabeth Chandra



No. 4 – 14 January 2016

The Look of Silence, A Loud Entry in 2016 Oscar Contest

Elizabeth Chandra


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has just announced the nominees for the 2016 Academy Awards and, as many expect, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is among the five films nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category. This is the second film by the Copenhagen-based American director to be nominated for Oscar; the first being The Act of Killing in 2014.

Both The Look and The Act revisit the anti-communist genocide in Indonesia that took place between 1965 and 1966, when between half a million to one million actual and perceived members of the Communist Party were slaughtered. The genocide was a turning point in Indonesia’s history, ending the administration of the leftist-leaning populist President Soekarno, the nation’s founding father and first president, and ushering in the Western-backed General Soeharto, who would hold the office of president for the next 31 years. In terms of Cold War geopolitics, the demise of the three million strong Communist Party of Indonesia, then the third largest in the world after the communist parties in China and the Soviet Union, was a major triumph for the Western Bloc.

The Look of Silence is a companion piece to The Act of Killing, but relates the genocide from an opposite angle. While The Act recounts the genocide from the point of view of the perpetrators, The Look trails a man whose brother had been accused of being a Communist and subsequently slaughtered back in 1966. The Act was widely acclaimed and won awards in a number of film festivals, but failed to snatch the biggest prize of all – the Oscar. Winning an Oscar would have accorded it visibility beyond the film and the intellectual circles. For reasons that were entirely political, I had hoped The Act had won. The Soeharto government had practically whitewashed history and imposed silence on the Communists genocide. Recognition by Hollywood might go a long way toward breaking the silence even further in Indonesia.

Many commentaries extolled The Act for its unusual narrating style – Oppenheimer had let the killers staged their own cinematic reenactment of the butchery, thus essentially a film inside a film – and for practically getting the perpetrators to self-incriminate on record. Admittedly, I was not among the fans. I thought The Act lacked thematic coherence. At one point in the film, the killers, who were Hollywood film aficionados back in the 1960s, reenact a torture-filled interrogation scene in the style of American gangsters, complete with suits and fedoras. While the double meaning of the word “act” in the title – as deed and staged performance – has hinted at the interplay between fact and fantasy, the film is not exactly a meditation on this juxtaposition.

By comparison, The Look of Silence has a much more modest focus. It follows a man, an optician by the name of Adi Rukun, as he learns about the individuals involved in the killing of his brother Ramli, the gory details of the execution, and especially as he confronts the executors. Adi was born two years after the genocide, but has lived all his life with its consequences – both psychological, as the murder of Ramli left a deep trauma on his parents, and political, because decades of anti-communist stance by the Indonesian state has left families like Adi’s stigmatized.

The Look’s modest objective, unpretentious in delivery, is precisely its strength. It allows Oppenheimer plenty of space to dwell on the emotions of everyone involved – on “the look” of their faces as Adi confronts his brother’s executors, as his parents relive the past by recounting the moment Ramli was taken into custody by a paramilitary group, as the butchers sit face to face with Adi, or as their daughter and wife learn that their loved one had been a sadistic murderer. The look on their faces is anything but silence. Or, it is a different kind of silence, one that is most deafening.

Close-up shots are copious in the film and Oppenheimer’s camera lingers long enough after some of the perpetrators became defensive and abruptly ended the conversation with Adi. This setup intrigues the audience – as good documentary films do – to ask: What happens after the camera switches off?

Its modest focus gives The Look of Silence a thematic unity that The Act of Killing lacks. When it does not try to do too much, The Look gives so much more.

It offers a few hints about the way forward, if reconciliation between the victims and the perpetrators is to be attempted. One is that bitterness from having a loved one slaughtered in the clash of ideology is profound and persistent. Adi’s aging mother does not seem to remember her or her husband’s accurate age, but can recall clearly the day her son Ramli was taken away, after being tortured.

The second is that civilians’ involvement in the genocide was extensive. In The Look we learn that an uncle of Adi’s used to work as guard for the paramilitary organization that detained, interrogated and executed people suspected of Communist ties. The extent of civilian involvement poses a challenge to attempts by victims and their families to seek justice and redress. No doubt the Indonesian army played a big role in mobilizing paramilitary organizations and in flaming anti-communist sentiments. But to blame the genocide solely at the feet of the army, or to characterize it in dichotomous terms as a conflict between the army and the Communist Party, is both reductive and unproductive.

Lastly, The Look also hints, perhaps unintentionally, that gender might point to an opening in the attempt for reconciliation. While the perpetrators and their sons reacted defensively to Adi confronting them about complicity in the genocide, the daughter and wife of two executors are visibly troubled by proofs of their complicity and especially sadistic conducts. While the men reacted with threats against Adi, ending the exchanges abruptly, the women apologized on behalf of their now seemingly senile father and deceased husband. There appears to be hope that women on both sides of divide might just be the bridge toward reconciliation.

For all this, The Look of Silence deserves the highest recognition in the film industry. I had wished The Act won an Oscar for political reason, now I hope The Look wins because it deserves an Oscar.


About the Author

Elizabeth Chandra lectures at Department of Politics and International Center, Keio University, Japan.

Institute for Journalism, Media & Communication Studies


Download PDF version of this paper


3 – Suspected Terrorists Arrested: Indonesia and the ISIL Threat, Yamamoto Nobuto



No. 3 – 29 December 2015

Suspected Terrorists Arrested: Indonesia and the ISIL Threat

Yamamoto Nobuto


Arrests Reported

On 18 December 2015, the Indonesian national police arrested terrorist suspects in the West Java city of Banjar. This was the beginning of a series of raids by the police across the island of Java. On the evening of 19 December in Central Java, the police reportedly found bomb-making materials including fertilizer, ball bearings, nails and electronic switches.[1] As the raids continued to 23 December, Indonesia’ special counter-terrorism squad arrested a total of eleven people suspected of being ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) supporters.

Based on the materials that the police obtained from the raids, it appears that members of the terrorist cell were planning a New Year’s Eve attack in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia,[2] as well as a series of attacks on churches and police station across Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan.[3]

The news were widely reported both in the Indonesian media and international media, in particular the Australian media. They suggested that ISIL’s hands were active in Indonesia and were plotting terror acts. Within the context of post-Paris terrorist attacks on 13 November 2015, it is understandable that the Australian media reacted vigilantly to the raids and arrests in Indonesia.

Unexpectedly to the Australian media and others, however, the Indonesian public did not seem to be rattled by the news, and instead many appeared to pay no attention to it. Why?

Special Counter-Terrorism Squad

For most Indonesians the news about the so-called Islamic extremist and/or Islamic terrorist activities is not unusual. Indonesia went through a series of terrorist attacks orchestrated by the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) from 2002 to 2005. The JI is known to be affiliated with the Al-Qaeda and conducted terrorist activities in Indonesia in the early years of the 2000s.

By the middle of the 2000s, the Indonesian national police have created a special counter-terrorism squad, the so-called Special Detachment 88 (Detasemen Khusus 88). It was formed on 30 June 2003, after the 2002 Bali bombings; it has been funded, equipped, and trained by the United States and Australia. Within five years of time, it “arrested 418 suspects, and about 250 of them have been tried and convicted.” It eventually dismantled the “JI’s secret organization, arrested or killed many of its top operatives.”[4]

Since the 2010s, the Special Detachment 88 has faced a new enemy – that is, ISIL related terrorism. As ISIL utilizes online propaganda and recruitment, more than 500 Indonesians are known to have travelled to Syria to fight with ISIL. A number of Islamist entities have openly campaigned for ISIL and more than 2,000 Indonesians have expressed support for the group.[5] A terrorism specialist warns that ISIL trains a “new generation of Indonesian terrorists.”[6]

Australia and Indonesia

“The AFP (Australian Federal Police) and FBI (Federal Bureau Investigation) have been working together with the Indonesian National Police, sharing threat reporting,” which “has been used by the Indonesian National Police to shape their investigations,” an AFP spokesperson said.[7]

This report demonstrates that containing ISIL is an international collaborative operation among police forces. Thanks to the US and Australian supports over the decades, the Indonesian national police has been in the position to access international intelligence information on “Islamic” terrorism and to utilize it for their domestic operations.

As Global Terrorism Index 2015 issued by Institute for Economics & Peace demonstrates, “(t)he West is designated as the countries where the ISIL has advocated for attacks. They include the United States, Canada, Australia, and European countries. The report highlights the striking prevalence of lone wolf attacks in the West. Lone wolf attacks account for 70 per cent of all terrorist deaths in the West since 2006” (p. 2).[8] It ranks Indonesia as the 33rd out of 124 countries, less dangerous than Thailand (ranked 10th) and the Philippines (ranked 11th) in the neighboring Southeast Asia.

Then why do Australian authorities paid special attention to suspicious developments in Indonesia? It is obvious that it derives from the history and memory of the 2002 Bali Bombings that killed 202 people, 88 of which were Australians. This is why the Australian government helped build the counter-terrorism squad of the Indonesian national police, and this is why the Australian media have closely monitored what goes on in this neighbor country.

Indonesia and ISIL

On 25 December, a week after the first raid, the Indonesian national police disclosed detailed information regarding the two men arrested on 23 December in Bekasi, West Java. The police said that they might have links to the Santoso-led East Indonesian Mujahidin (MIT) group,[9] which is known to be affiliated with the ISIL movement.[10] The two men are Arif Hidyatullah, alias Abu Mush’ab, and a Chinese Uighur identified as Ali. Ali was on his way to meet Santoso when he was captured and is a part of the Poso section of MIT group.[11] And since Santoso remains on the run, the Indonesian forces are mobilizing “for a manhunt in steamy jungles on the far-flung island of Sulawesi.”[12]

The information revealed that potential terrorists from abroad exist in Indonesia and the authorities have been cautious about their entries and activities. It also warns the public that ISIL related Islamic extremists are active in a small scale in the country. In fact, after the Paris attacks, the Indonesian police beefed up security outside several Western embassies, shopping malls and places of worship.

Commenting on the raids in the previous week, the news analysis of Indonesia’s leading English newspaper, The Jakarta Post, warns that the influence of ISIL in Indonesia “has become more apparent along with the rapid increase of radicalization within society.”[13] This is the logic that most Western readers can understand. This is the logic that implicates the polarization of the society due to the growing influence of ISIL. And this is exactly what ISIL has attempted to do in non-battle fields – to create polarization in the society, to devide the society into supporters of the caliphate and the infidels.[14]

The media, domestic and international, have reported with caution the suspected terrorists’ arrests before Christmas and the Maulid Nabi Islamic holy day on 24 December. However, the Indonesian public appears to remain calm, unprovoked. It is a good sign because it demonstrates that the public does not fall into “the ISIL trap.”[15] The general public does not seem to be concerned with picking sides – the ISIL or its foe. The public reacted as if there was no ISIL threat. It is safe to say that the Indonesia society is resilient enough to shield it from ISIL propaganda.

[1] “Suspected terrorists arrested in Indonesia ‘planned to detonate bombs’ in Java, Sumatra,” ABC News, 21 December 2015. (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Arrested terrorists have links to Poso, IS,” The Jakarta Post, 26 December 2015. (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[4] Hamish McDonald. “Fighting terrorism with smart weaponry,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 May 2008. (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[5] Peter Chalk. Black flag rising: ISIL in Southeast Asia and Australia. Australian Strategic Policy Institute. December 2015. (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[6] “Islamic State training new generation of Indonesian terrorists, expert Sidney Jones warns,” ABC News, 9 October 2015. (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[7] “AFP helps stem threat of terrorism in Indonesia as nine arrested following raids,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 2015. (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[8] Institute for Economics & Peace. 2015. Global Terrorism Index 2015: Measuring and Understanding the Impact of Terrorism. (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[9] Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium. “Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT).” (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[10] Mitchell, Scott. 2015. “Police Combing Indonesian Island for the Country’s ‘Most Wanted’ Terror Leader,” The Vice News. (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[11] “Arrested terrorists have links to Poso, IS,” op.cit.

[12] “Indonesia scours a jungle for country’s most-wanted man,” The Straits Times, 24 December 2015. (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[13] Marguerite Afra Sapiie. “News analysis: Between threat of radicalized IS supporters and homegrown terrorists,” The Jakarta Post, 28 December 2015. (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[14] Polk, William R. 2015. “Falling into the ISIS Trap,”, 17 November 2015. (Accessed on 28 December 2015).

[15] Ibid.


About the Author

Yamamoto Nobuto is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies and International Relations, Department of Politics and currently directs the Institute for Journalism, Media & Communication Studies, Keio University, Japan.


Download PDF version of this paper


2 – Haze in Southeast Asia: A Complicated Story, Yamamoto Nobuto



No.2 – 28 December 2015

Haze in Southeast Asia: A Complicated Story

Yamamoto Nobuto


Haze 2015 

The year 2015 recorded the worst haze pollution in Southeast Asia. As early as June, haze had blanketed Riau, Indonesia,[1] and from there it spread to affect other parts of the vast archipelagic nation – especially the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan – and the neighboring countries of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Southern Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines. The source of the problem was land clearing by way of fire, which is considerably fast and inexpensive for many of the plantations in the area compared with other techniques.

Singapore was the second hardest hit country after Indonesia. Its leading English newspaper, The Straits Times, monitored the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) on the daily basis. On 14 September, the local government in Riau, located on the other side of Malacca Straits from Singapore, declared a haze emergency.[2] At 11pm of 24 September, The Straits Times reported, the PSI “was 226-279, moving entirely into the very unhealthy range for the first time.”[3] In early October, “(M)ore than 140,000 people have reported respiratory infections”[4] in the region.

As haze developed, the public did not just sit down and endure the worsening environmental conditions; many expressed anger. In late September a Singapore volunteer group called the Haze Elimination Action Team called to boycott the companies involved in starting fires in Indonesia.[5] In early October Singapore local supermarkets pulled all paper products of Asia Pulp & Paper Group, one of the companies suspected of connection with the forest fires in Indonesia, from stores.[6]

Annual Event

The haze season in Southeast Asia usually runs from June to October. Haze has been described as “milky white in the atmosphere, while against a bright background it will become yellow or orange-red” and, even more troubling, can obscure vision and cause respiratory problem.[7] It is a kind of smoke pollution, annually affecting Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and partially Brunei and Thailand.

The main source of haze has been fires occurring in Sumatra and Kalimantan (Borneo) from Indonesia. Haze has become an annual event since 1991, and covers major parts of Singapore and Malaysia as well as Sumatra and Kalimantan. Haze endangers human health and from time to time local governments in the three countries have declared the state of emergency due to high haze pollution. It has also become a diplomatic issue among the three nations.

Haze pollution gets worse year by year, but 1997, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2015 experienced especially severe haze problem. Haze is considered as a part of human security issue because of its harmful affect on human health. It is also a matter of transboundary risk for Southeast Asian nations. In order to prevent it, it is obvious that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would have to cooperate and work out some kind of solution.

Regional and International Agreements

Haze pollution in 1997 was the first case that constituted a substantial health risk to the public in Southeast Asia. The so-called 1997 Southeast Asian haze was reportedly caused mainly by slash-and-burn farming in Sumatra and Kalimantan. This farming technique was the cheapest and easiest means to clear the lands for traditional agriculture.[8]

In response to the 1997 haze episode, there has been a series of meetings, plans and agreements attempting to control land and forest fires. On 23 December 1997 in Singapore, ASEAN environment ministers agreed on a Regional Haze Action Plan. It planned to manage and monitor land and forest fires as well as to strengthen regional land and forest fire-fighting capability. [9]

Four years later, on 10 June 2002, all ASEAN nations except Indonesia signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in Kuala Lumpur. The agreement requires all parties to “cooperate in developing and implementing measures to prevent, monitor, and mitigate transboundary haze pollution by controlling sources of land and/or forest fires, development of monitoring, assessment and early warning systems, exchange of information and technology, and the provision of mutual assistance,” and even “take legal, administrative and/or other measures to implement their obligations under the Agreement.”[10] It was not until September 2014 when Indonesia ratified the agreement.

Despite these international and regional agreements and arrangements, haze continues to become a problem in the region and threaten public health. In other words, the series of arrangements and efforts by ASEAN has turned out to be ineffective.

Capitalist Logic

A powerful industry stands in the way of tackling the haze problem. It is the palm oil industry. In the 2010s, Indonesia and Malaysia combined have produced more than 85% of palm oil in the world.[11] This fact indicates a complicated situation behind the haze problem in Southeast Asia.

As mentioned-above, the slash-and-burn farming is largely to blame for haze. Most of the burning has been concentrated in the Riau province, Sumatra. The province is site of the most productive palm oil producer in the 21st century. Big palm oil conglomerates own the land where the fires usually occur. They have claimed to have strict no-burning policies, and yet land clearing by way of fire continues to take place in their concessions for palm oil.[12]

A study published in 2014 examines the operation of palm oil companies in relation to environmental concerns. It explores the top 25 palm oil companies. Only 3 of them do not have their headquarters in Southeast Asia. According to the study, 10 out of 25 companies have met the minimum standard of transparency, while the rest did not. Among the bottom of the last 10 are Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean companies.[13]

Palm oil conglomerates cannot work without outsiders’ supports. Local politicians appear to work with and for the palm oil industry. In return, palm oil companies cultivate patronage politics in Indonesia.[14] Local administrative regulations have not worked the way it should be. For instance, in June 2013 the governor of the Riau province, Rusli Zainal, was arrested for corruption, and among the charges included abuse of his authority in providing forestry permit and the acceptance of bribe from a private company. [15]

Palm oil industry is a cash cow for local politicians.

No clear solution

Even with all these problems, the production of palm oil in Sumatra and Kalimantan does not appear to slow down, but instead is escalating. The world market of palm oil demands it. Palm oil is the most widely used source of vegetable oil. It is used for pizza dough, instant noodles, ice cream, margarine, chocolate, cookies, packaged bread, lipstick, detergent, biodiesel, shampoo, and soap.[16]

It is clear that our daily consumption is indirectly responsible for the deforestation and fires in Southeast Asia. Therefore, any kind of international agreement to tackle haze, blaming the palm oil industry and local politicians, or boycotting certain items will not be good enough. Our life style is at the center of the haze problem.

Haze is not simply a problem confined in Southeast Asia. It is connected to our daily life. It is the matter of how the palm oil industry develops and how we consume its products. While there is no easy solution, a comprehensive one is needed.

[1] “Haze envelopes parts of Riau province in Indonesia,” The Straits Times, 30 June 2015. (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[2] “Riau declares emergency as haze worsens,” The Straits Times, 15 September 2015. (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[3] “Haze worsens: 24-hour PSI in very unhealthy range, 3-hour PSI hits 317 at 11pm,” The Straits Times, 24 September 2015. (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[4] “Southeast Asia’s hazardous haze,” Aljazeera, 7 October 2015. (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[5] “We are coming after you: Haze group to companies burning land,” Channel NewsAsia, 25 September 2015. (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[6] “12 Products To Boycott Because You Are A Haze-Hating Singaporean,” Must Share News, 8 October 2015. (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[7] (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[8] Heil, A. and Goldammer, J. G. (2001) “Smoke-haze pollution: a review of the 1997 episode in Southeast Asia,” Regional Environmental Change, 2(1): 24-37. (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[9] and (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[10] (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[11] “Which Country Produces the Most Palm Oil.” (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[12] Pye, Oliver & Bhattacharya, Jayati eds. 2013. The Palm Oil Controversy in Southeast Asia: A Transnational Perspective. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing.

[13] Butler, Rhett A. 2014. “Ranking the world’s best – and worst – palm oil companies in terms of sustainability,” Mongabay, 20 November 2014. (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[14] Varkkey, Helena. 2013. “Patronage politics, plantation fires and transboundary haze,” Environmental Hazards, 12(3-4): 200-217. (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[15] “After extensive questioning, KPK detains Riau governor,” The Jakarta Post, 15 June 2013. (Accessed on 26 December 2015).

[16] (Accessed on 26 December 2015).


About the Author

Yamamoto Nobuto is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies and International Relations, Department of Politics and currently directs the Institute for Journalism, Media & Communication Studies, Keio University, Japan.


Download PDF version of this paper


1 – Two Sources of Abe’s confidence, Yamamoto Nobuto


No.1 – 27 December 2015

Two Sources of Abe’s confidence

Yamamoto Nobuto


The Law Passed

Early Saturday of 19 September 2015, Japan’s Diet passed contentious security bills into law. The set of bills are designed to ease restrictions on Japan’s tightly controlled military (Self Defense Forces), and allow Japanese troops to be deployed for combat purpose abroad for the first time in 70 years. Outside the parliament building, thousands of citizens rallied to express their opposition to the laws, because they fear that the laws would fundamentally reshape the proudly pacifist tradition and value of post-war Japan.

Citizen’s protest rallies and dissenting voices were widely reported by the media both domestically and internationally. Yet somehow the coalition government of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the New Komei Party, along with four small opposition parties, was confident that they had enough public support and thus passed the bills.

The summer of 2015 might have been a turning point in Japan’s politics and media. It was the summer when Japan reshaped its security laws and when the nation’s mainstream media failed to comprehend and therefore convey the substance of the bills in a balanced way.

International Acceptance

Before Abe delivered the official remark to commemorate the 70th year anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, the occasion and the speech attracted much scholarly and media attention. This was because Abe was widely regarded as an historical revisionist, thus his words and deeds had the potential to deteriorate Japan’s diplomatic relations with its neighbor countries. Ever since he regained the seat of prime minister in December 2012, Abe was eager to deliver the public remark on the occasion of the 70th anniversary. In his speech, however, Abe included what today are considered keywords concerning Japan’s imperial past – “aggression,” “colonial rule,” “deepest remorse,” and “sincere condolences” – and he emphasized the lessons learned from history.[1]

But as expected, China and South Korea were not convinced by the Abe’s statement. The two countries have contended that many historical issues which took place during Japan’s colonization and war periods have not been properly resolved. They criticized Abe for not actually offering an apology, and for delaying the resolution of these historical issues.

To the contrary, most Southeast Asian nations which experienced Japan’s colonial rule for three and half years – thus substantially shorter compared with the colonization of Taiwan or Korea – positively received Abe’s remark. For instance, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented the inclusion of the four keywords, though it noted, “Japan should squarely face the past, take the lessons of history deeply and make all efforts for peace and prosperity.”[2] Japan’s most important ally, the US government, commended Abe’s statement.[3]

The overall positive international response certainly was a successful sign of diplomatic effort that the Abe’s administration achieved.

Abe’s Approval Rate

The Abe administration, like other administrations, has paid close attention to public approval ratings. Despite the citizen’s protests in 2015, its public approval rating has been securely kept well over 30%. Relatively speaking, this number reflects positively on the administration, because previous Democratic Party of Japan’s administrations for three years were rarely above 30%.

According to PML Index that calculates the average of 14 public opinion pollings in Japan, the worst approval rate of the Abe administration was 39.9%, which was in September 2015. Its disapproval rate was 45.7% then.[4] It was around the time when the above-mentioned security law was passed. Certainly it was the lowest approval rating ever since Abe assumed the prime minister office.

The media were actually quite preoccupied with reporting how the administration’s disapproval rating went up in the course of debates on the security bill and the 70th anniversary statement. Certainly these things had news values for the media; in particular, June 2015 was the turning point. On 4 June, the Research Commission on the Constitution of the House of Representatives was held in which three witnesses who are constitutional law specialists argued that the way the security bills had been debated was unconstitutional. It was then that the public opinion turned to negative toward the Abe administration, and the media started to focus on covering public dissent.

<Chart: The Dis/Approval Rates of the Abe Administration, Jan 2013-Nov 2015, PML Index. (Accessed 25 December 2015)>

Commentary-1 image

However, it can be argued that, from the perspective of the administration, the approval rates have maintained the secure range throughout 2015. It means that the administration evaluated that its policy and attitude was public accepted despite of public protests in the streets.

Abe’s Confidence

Based on the above data, it can be argued that throughout 2015 the Abe administration had confidence to pass the security bills. Its confidence derived from both international and domestic reactions: The international reaction to the Abe’s 70th years statement on 14 August 2015 was generally positive, while domestically Abe’s public approval rate did not go under 40 percent.

It is intriguing to see how the Japanese mainstream media misjudged the Abe administration’s confidence. It could also be argued that the media misjudged the public opinion. The summer of 2015 may present the serious problem that Japan’s mainstream media have faced, and yet did not realize consciously.

[1] (Accessed on 25 December 2015).

[2] The Straits Times. 2015. “Singapore issues response to Japanese PM Abe’s 70th WWII anniversary statement,” 16 August 2015. (Accessed on 25 December 2015).

[3] The White House. 2015. “Statement by NSC Spokesperson Ned Price on Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s Statement on the 70th Anniversary of the End of World War II,” 14 August 2015.’s (Accessed on 25 December 2015).

[4] (Accessed on 25 December 2015).


About the Author

Yamamoto Nobuto is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies and International Relations, Department of Politics and currently directs the Institute for Journalism, Media & Communication Studies, Keio University, Japan.


Download PDF version of this paper


5 – Is This Supposed to be a Country? Yamamoto Nobuto



No. 5 – 23 March 2017

“Is This Supposed to be a Country?”

Yamamoto Nobuto

11 March 2017

On the night of 11 March 11 2017, the Gwanghwamun Square in the South Korean capital city, Seoul, was packed with the nation’s citizens. The previous day was a historic day in the Korean history — the Constitutional Court had ruled for the dismissal of the embattled president, Park Geun-hye. It was the first time in the nation’s history that the president was impeached. To celebrate the impeachment, a citizens’ rally was held. The stage was set up, the crowd shouted victorious slogans, then sang the anti-Park Geun-hye anthem, “이게나라냐ㅅㅂ 윤민석”, which translates as “Is This Supposed to be a Country?” in English.

The song is composed by a popular progressive songwriter Yoon Min-suk. It begins with a strong message “resign, resign, resign” — an explicit demand for Park Geun-hye to resign.  But the lyrics also attack other figures and entities such Choi Soon-sil, the business woman who benefited from political ties with President Park; the former President Lee Myung-bak; the President Park’s Saenuri Party; as well as the prominent newspaper, Chosun Ilbo. The message of the lyrics is clear, “criminals enjoy heaven, people suffer in the hell”; politicians, political parties, chaebol (conglomerates with political connections) and major mass media — all of them are described as privileged class who exploit Korean people and enrich themselves.

9 March 2017

On the evening of 9 March, the night before the judgment of the Constitutional Court, I headed to the Gwanghwamun Square with three colleagues of mine. At around 6 PM, people were beginning to gather there. The main stage and sound equipment were being set up. Korean media as well as those from abroad were on standby. WiFi service for the demonstrators had been prepared. Anti-riot police formed a line on both sides of the main roads. Strangely enough, there was no tension; LED candles that had become the symbol of the anti-Park demonstration appeared have sold well, and demonstration related flyers were being handed out.

After 8:00 pm, a crowd of about a couple of hundreds began to march from the square toward the Constitutional Court, and formed a rally in the main road in front of the Court. The rally attracted thousands other demonstrators, seemingly coming out of nowhere. There were youngs and olds, parents and children, wheelchair-bound men, and more. In the cold weather, the people continued to sing big “Is This Supposed to be a Country?”. The road in front of the Constitutional Court became a meeting place, which was sealed up by the police, and police officers were watching the demonstration from a distance.

10 March 2017

In the morning of 10 March, a few hours before the Constitutional Court revealed its verdict, you could feel the tension in the atmosphere. From dawn, Korean media had begun commentaries and speculations concerning the verdict, which was set to be announced at 11 o’clock. A TV station even displayed a countdown clock on the screen. Thousands of citizens gathered at the Gwanghwamun Square from morning.

Shortly after 11 o’clock, the reading of the judgment sentence began and the dismissal of President Park was handed over at 11:30. My colleagues and I, on our way to Yonsei University, followed the reading of the verdict from inside a taxi by way of a radio broadcast, but arriving before the final verdict was read. As soon as we got off the taxi, we asked a student about the result of the judgment. The student replied, “impeachment,” with a smile. We had an academic seminar at the university on that day, but one could sense a cheerful atmosphere permeating through the faculty members and graduate students at the seminar.

Occupy Movement(s)

While in Seoul, I also witnessed a scene that I did not see being reported in the Japanese media. It happened right next to the Gwanghwamun Square. There is a Korean government office complex there. In front of the complex, there was a labor union that had erected a tent and was making public critique against anti-labor policy. Workers placed demands such as work guarantee for irregular workers, and improvement of working conditions. The number of this much smaller sitting rally was less than 20 people, but they persisted in the severe winter cold.

Most of the crowd there however appeared to take no notice of this little demonstration by a labor union and their modest tents, and was either hastily heading to the demonstration venue or in a hurry to go home. I saw a scene similar to it in other spots as well. The pro-Park Geun-hye demonstrators occupied a part of the Seoul City Hall Square. They supported the president and her pro-US policy. Again, for the most part passersby walked about between these tents, unflustered by their existence.

Anxiety and Dissatisfaction

It seems that public dissatisfaction and anxiety have intensified in the Korean society. Under the government’s neo-liberal economic policy, Korean economy did not improve as expected, while socio-economic disparity widened. On the one hand, Korean elites are required to adapt to global standards, gaining high income while competing globally. And yet the employment rate of new college graduates is around 50 percent. It is getting harder for new college graduates to obtain decent jobs, even for those who graduate from elite colleges. Therefore, students take extra years to acquire additional skills such as a foreign language in order to increase their selling points in the tough job market. Many of them still aspired to obtain steady job in chaebol or bureaucracy.On the other, since the government altered its immigration law in 2004 that allows short-term migrant workers to take blue-collar jobs, low skilled Korean citizens have faced even tougher competition in the job market. This has forced them to compromise by taking irregular part-time employment with no social security. Because of the lack of comprehensive social security and chronic corruptions in politics, the future might not be too bright for many citizens in Korea. This situation pushes them to raise their voices against the government.

Unheard voices, however, remain uncovered by the conventional media as well as the social media. Under the cold weather, workers who did not sing “Is This Supposed to be a Country?” along with the anti-Park Geun-hye crowd persisted.


About the Author

Yamamoto Nobuto is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies and International Relations, Department of Politics and currently directs the Institute for Journalism, Media & Communication Studies, Keio University, Japan.


Download PDF version of this paper