The phrase of the Sword of Damocles derives from a Greek parable, in which an individual finds themselves exposed to constant threat or danger. When John F Kennedy used the phrase at a UN address in 1961, during which he claimed the world would be in constant fear of the threat of nuclear war, it carried much weight in political circles. However, this speech is no longer a well-known piece of American history – and the phrase has become one with which few people are familiar.
After several decades, the phrase was used again at important UN related events. UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye who was on a mandate of investigating Japanese freedom of speech used this phrase several times when he referred to the Broadcast Act during his visit to Japan in April 2016 and June 2017. He said the Sword of Damocles almost every time he talked about the Broadcast Act, so for him, this phrase was very important when speaking about the law. Unfortunately his use of the phrase received scarce attention from both Japanese and foreign media though his visits to Japan were high profile. As far as I searched online, as of June 21st, 2017, the phrase was only written in two media outlets, the online version of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ)’s official journal, Number 1 Shimbun and the other is in Sankei Newspaper. The phrase is quoted in an article by Guardian correspondent Justin MucCurry titled “The State vs. Japanese Press” posted on May 30th, 2016. The article by Sankei Newspaper is a transcript of Kaye’s press conference at Sophia University on June 2nd, 2017.
Kaye submitted his final report on his investigation on June 12th publicly to the UN and completed his investigation in Japan. In order to understand fully the result of his research, it is important to understand, the Sword of Damocles.
The Sword of Damocles in Tusculan Disputations
The story of Sword of Damocles is written in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, a series of books written around 45 B.C. Dionysius was a tyrant of Syracuse in the 4th century B.C. Though he exercised significant power in Syracuse and enjoyed the most elegant grandeurs in life, he was quite miserable and suffered from a deep-rooted inability to trust anyone. One of his courtiers at his palace, Damocles, was constantly flattering Dionysius and speaking of how wonderful his life must be. Dionysius, tired of listening to Damocles’ flattery, decided to throw a party to let Damocles experience what the life of a ruler was like.
At this party, Damocles was set in front of table with the finest adornments. Perfumes, exotic meals, handsome servants and more were all made available to him. However, above his chair hung a sword – held in place by a single horse hair. Once Damocles saw the sword, he could no longer pay attention to the finery in front of him. The food went uneaten, the servants unnoticed, Damocles’ only care was for the sword and the hair holding it in place. After enduring this anxiety for some time, Damocles implored Dionysius to let him leave – as Damocles no longer had any desire for the things he thought had made his ruler happy.
John F. Kennedy’s Address to the UN General Assembly
On September 25th, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at the UN General Assembly where he discussed the rampant nuclear proliferation that was occurring during the Cold War among other things. In his speech, he warned that all of mankind was living under a nuclear sword of Damocles –hanged by a thread that could be severed at any time. At this point the Soviet Union and United States were engaged in an escalating nuclear standoff, and it appeared increasingly possible that nuclear war between the major superpowers could break out. It was in the context of this perilous stalemate that Kennedy said:
“Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”
UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye’s Use of Sword of Damocles
David Kaye at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on April 19th 2016
Kaye’s Opinion on Japanese Media
Kaye argued that Japanese media’s independence faces serious threat. When he came to Japan in April, 2016 for investigation on free speech and interviewed many journalists, many of them asked for anonymity when speaking to him, fearing the retaliation from executives of their companies. Kaye claimed that this was quite unusual. During their interviews many of the journalists told him that the government is applying pressure on them, abetted by management. He talked about this in his press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on April 19th, 2016, and also this opinion was written in his final report to the UN submitted on May 17th, 2017 ( report was publicly submitted on June 12th, 2017) However, there were those who disagreed with Kaye’s opinion claiming that testimonies provided under anonymity was not reliable.
Kaye’s Opinion on Broadcast Act
The Broadcast Act is a law enacted in 1950 that codifies general rules that broadcasters should follow. In article 4 of the Act, it states that the duties of the media are such that they should remain politically impartial and portray all major political issues from a number of perspectives. Article 174 states that if a broadcaster breaches a provision of the Broadcast Law, the license of that broadcaster can be suspended, and in the worst case scenario, the license can be revoked.
Article 4 (1) The broadcaster shall comply with the matters provided for in the following items when editing the broadcast programs of domestic broadcasting or domestic and international broadcasting.
(i) It shall not harm public safety or good morals.
(ii) It shall be politically fair.
(iii) Its reporting shall not distort the facts.
(iv) It shall clarify the points at issue from as many angles as possible where there are conflicting opinions concerning an issue.
Article 174 If the broadcaster (excluding terrestrial basic broadcasters ) has violated this Act or disposition based on this Act, Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications shall set a period within three months and shall order the suspension of the operations of the broadcasting.
Since the broadcasting in Japan is based on a license system, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has authority to approve and revoke licenses of broadcasters, these provisions can be significant threats to the broadcasters’ freedom of expression.
David Kaye consistently argued that these provisions in the Broadcast Act, in effect, as a sword of Damocles that hangs over the head of all media professionals. Even though the government has yet to invoke these provisions, Kaye cautions that the potential threat to shut down broadcasters undermines their ability to report sensitive stories and could cause a chilling effect for journalists. Kaye believes that the Broadcast Act should ultimately be amended, in particular by repealing Article 4.
At his press conference at the FCCJ on April 15th, 2016, Kaye stated that though Article 4 has never been invoked “in the past that it is a kind of potential the Sword of Damocles. It’s a potential threat to them in the future and certainly a threat the government will regulate the broadcast media strongly.”
However, the interpreter did not translate “the Sword of Damocles,” into Japanese. This could be one of the reasons why Kaye’s reference to the Sword of Damocles when he spoke about the Broadcast Act has not reached to most of Japanese press. However, we cannot blame the interpreter as the Sword of Damocles is a minor idiom that many Americans do not know. Speed is essential for simultaneous translation, therefore, if she did not know the phrase, googling it must have taken a lot of time and breaks the flow of interpretation, so skipping the phrase could have been the best choice for her. Pointing it out for her for not translating the phrase is kind of nitpicking.
The second time he used the phrase “Sword of Damocles” was at David Kaye’s forum organized by an NGO Human Rights Now at Diet Office Members’ Building on June 2nd, 2017.
Kaye stated that there was no case in the past that showed that the government would use the Article 4 of the Broadcast Act to undermine the capacity of broadcast media, “but it hangs like if I can use the phrase like the Sword of Damocles over some media over broadcast media in the event that they have reporting that the government doesn’t like and if the government were not doing the regulating then the media wouldn’t have this kind of concerns.”
Unfortunately this time again the phase of the Sword of Damocles was not translated by the interpreter.
The third time that he used the phrase was at the press conference at Sophia University later on the same day. In regards with the information materials available online are a youtube video by Kyodo News which is about one minute long that does not include the part where he spoke about the Sword of Damocles, and a transcript of the press conference by Sankei News which is available only in Japanese. In the transcript of the Sankei News, Kaye stated that he feels as if the Sword of Damocles is hanging over broadcasters, and this is the only case of Japanese media covering his reference to the Sword of Damocles when speaking about the Broadcast Act as far as I can confirm searching online.
Kaye said the Sword of Damocles when mentioning the Broadcast Act during three important occasions while on his visits to Japan. Media independence in Japan has been one of the most important challenges that Japan has faced, and it is the topic that is drawing foreign media’s attentions as well. Therefore, his usage of the word should be given more recognition like when Kennedy used the phrase when he was talking about the threat of nuclear proliferation at the UN.
- The Tusculan Disputations of M. Tullius Cicero, Translated by W.H. Main. 213-216.
- Youtube Video titled David Kaye: “The Freedom of Expression in Japan”
- Youtube Video デビッド・ケイ（「表現の自由」国連特別報告者)(1)
- Youtube Video by Human Rights Now titled【院内集会】6/2 国連表現の自由特別報告者デビッド・ケイ氏を迎えて
- Youtube Video by Kyodo News titled「事実に基づく」と反論 日本政府に国連報告者
- Youtube Video titled Learn English idioms | The sword of Damocles
- Youtube Video titled Sword of Damocles