Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
In an episode of the first world war television comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, the catastrophic absurdity of war is laid bare in parody by a court martial centred around the murder of a pigeon.
Outside the courtroom, the unmitigated slaughter of the Flanders trenches is vaporising blood, treasure and sanity at a pace that shames humanity. Inside, officers have the time, comfort and resources to prosecute a man and sentence him to death over the foreshortened life of a common bird.
In 2023 Tokyo, now contemplating its own dead pigeon show trial, the setting is infinitely more placid. But the underlying, tragicomic dissonance is similar: in war or peace, is the prosecution of a pigeon killer the sign of a nation that has lost its grip on reality, or does it mark one as an upholder of civilisation in a maddened world? The answer, in Japan’s case, may be both.
The story, now covered in minute detail by Japanese media, concerns a 50-year-old taxi driver who faces as much as a year behind bars or a hefty fine for a moment of madness.
According to police, Atsushi Ozawa, temporarily blinded by avicidal rage and a sense of mankind’s territorial right to all available asphalt, drove his cab into a flock of pigeons that refused to accept cars as the masters of Tokyo’s public highways. One of the birds was unable to escape the oncoming vehicle and was killed, in an incident spotted by a member of the public and duly reported to the nearest agents of law enforcement.
The metropolitan police flew into action, scouring security camera footage to identify the driver and bring him to justice. In an effort to build their case, the police employed the services of a veterinarian who carried out an autopsy on the pigeon’s cadaver and was able to confirm that the cause of death had indeed been traumatic shock. The police shared with local media the arrested man’s unbowed assertion that: “the road belongs to humans, it’s the pigeons who should avoid it”.
In legal terms, the overarching question now is whether the cabbie can be fully prosecuted under Japan’s Wildlife Protection, Control and Hunting Management Act. The legislation is not explicit on this type of incident, but it clearly hungers for the kind of case law that this debacle will produce.
The whole affair, from the moment the police decided that it was worth tracking down the perpetrator, performs a much greater public duty, however. Built into the prospect of prosecution of the pigeon killer in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district are three critically important assertions of stability: ethical, social and fiscal.
On all three fronts, the assertions come at a time of ever-greater and more unsettling evidence from around the world of how fragile everything looks. In the face of that, and with a prime minister suffering tumbling approval ratings, Japan’s leadership is at pains to demonstrate to its populace that it has not let anything slip.
Other countries may find themselves forced to decide that certain crimes will now go unprosecuted or that the rule of law is more porous than it once was; here, pigeons are avenged and no would-be bird assailant can sleep easy.
But perhaps the strongest — if more subliminal — assertion arises from the financial cost of arresting the pigeon-killer. The implication is that such expenditure is critical to civilised society. Not only should the state pay for a postmortem on a species of bird that, across the country, public signage orders people not to feed, but Japan can afford — financially and despite the rising demands on the public purse — to do these things properly.
And in that lies a clue to how one of the world’s largest economies intends, for now, to keep treading the high-wire of epic public indebtedness and what, to many, looks increasingly like a loss of fiscal discipline. Even with government borrowing at a ratio of about 260 per cent to gross domestic product, it is making it clear that Japanese life and Japanese standards are operating as usual.
This stance, in all its bravado, is what allowed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to push through a ¥17tn ($113bn) fiscal stimulus package last month, and to propose tax cuts at the same time as locking Japan into a historic increase in defence spending. It assumes that nothing huge — including plausible and in some cases quantifiable threats such as an earthquake or regional conflict — will upset the equilibrium.
The Blackadder trial exposed pigeon-based truth in the extreme distortions of war; Tokyo’s trial could find it in the also considerable distortions of peace.
Source: Financial Times