Yuichi Sugimoto wanted to go to Syria. His own government asked him not to go. Then it took it took away his passport. It's understandable that Japan would want to avoid a repeat of last month's hostage crisis. But over the weekend when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs blocked Sugimoto, a 58-year-old freelance photographer, from travelling to a country that Japan considers a danger zone, it took an extraordinary step that critics say is unconstitutional and goes against one of the country's core principles of freedom. To many it seemed that Japan had done what it had said it wouldn't do: let itself be cowed by threats from Isis.
The problems for Sugimoto started when he bought a plane ticket to Turkey in early February and told a newspaper reporter about it. His plan was to go over land to the northern Syrian border town of Kobani, where Kurdish forces recently had taken back control from Isis after a four-month battle. Over several days officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called and visited Sugimoto in the northern city of Niigata, where he runs a small lodge. They tried to make a case for his not going. But Sugimoto would not change his mind. That's when the ministry ordered him to hand over his passport. There's an imminent threat and we’re doing this to keep you out of harm’s way, they told him. (The ministry says it invoked a section of the 1951 Passport Act: article 19, paragraph 1, sub-paragraph 4.)
Not since the Second World War had the government used such reasoning to confiscate someone’s passport. A spokeswoman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs described this as “a very extreme case”. She pointed out that Isis had vowed to kill more Japanese and that it was the government’s job to protect its citizens.
Since 2011, Japan has advised its citizens not to set foot in Syria. It's not a travel ban, though. Civil war, US-led air strikes, Isis threats – there are plenty of reasons not to go. After last month’s beheadings of two Japanese nationals by Isis militants the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a strongly worded notice to Japanese media outlets urging them to refrain from sending journalists anywhere near Syria and its borders. In essence, the ministry was asking that the media demonstrate self-restraint.
There's been quite a bit of that lately here: opposition politicians refraining from (or apologising for) criticising the government, musicians deciding not to perform provocative songs, broadcasters cancelling or suspending programmes with references to bloodletting or ransom.
The public debate has been muted but a backlash is slowly gaining momentum. In recent weeks, a few thousand people, including journalists, filmmakers, academics and musicians, have added their names to an online petition, drafted by a New York-based documentary film-maker, in support of freedom of expression. Sugimoto could not have been unaware of the risks. He is no stranger to war zones, having photographed conflicts in Croatia and Iraq. Japanese officials admit that there are limits to what they can do to keep their citizens from endangering themselves. When the government exceeds those limits, as it did in Sugimoto's case, it sets a bad precedent and comes off looking like Tokyo is once again shying away from problems beyond its borders.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.