Well, it’s been a particularly long time since the last post on this blog. What can I say? With the U.S. election and the holidays, and just general laziness, I guess I let any concept of a schedule slip away. Let’s see if I can get a handle on this in the near future. [Update: I couldn’t.]
In the meantime, I’ve been watching with fascination as the presidency of Donald J. Trump takes form. I don’t know what it’s like on the ground in the U.S. right now, but living abroad I’m constantly being asked about Mr. Trump. His policies, his love of Twitter, his hairstyle, his public attacks on private individuals, his third wife’s previous modeling career — everything about the man is the subject of intense curiosity. One particular issue that has caught my eye in the wake of Trump’s inauguration is the new administration’s cantankerous relationship with the press. Insulting tweets, marginalization of unflattering publications, dissemination of obvious errors and easily debunked lies. All of these spectacularly visible conflicts got me thinking about the press here in Japan, and its intricate relationships with the government and the public.
I have to begin by admitting that the news source I watch on television the most is the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, or NHK, Japan’s national public broadcaster. I have a habit of turning NHK news on in the background every morning. I just find it interesting to watch how they cover certain matters, like the Fukushima meltdowns, Japan’s dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands, American Major League Baseball, and President Donald Trump. Plus, in the evening, their broadcast is simulcast in English, which is nice.
The truly interesting thing about NHK is their cozy relationship with the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. NHK is seldom, if ever, critical of the current administration, and tends to take a tone that falls right in line with Mr. Abe’s well known nationalist proclivities. This is not by accident, either. In December 2013, Katsuto Momii, a friend of Mr. Abe, was named president of NHK, and almost immediately announced that the organization “should not much deviate from the government’s position in their programming.” NHK also tends to take a revisionist view of Japan’s role in World War II, as does Mr. Abe himself, allegedly going so far as to ban any reference to the Nanking Massacre or Korean “comfort women” in its English language materials.
In December 2016, Mr. Momii was replaced after just a single gaff-plagued three year term by Ryoichi Ueda, a Mitsubishi Corporation executive. As of this writing, it’s too early to tell whether Mr. Ueda, unlike his predecessor, is capable of speaking in public without putting his foot in his mouth. Despite their problems, though, I still watch NHK news, in part because I can’t get enough of how the sports reporters cover the Japanese players in the U.S. Major Leagues without so much as telling us which teams won the games they’re talking about. Fun stuff.
NHK’s self-imposed restrictions on transparency have coincided neatly with Mr. Abe’s return to power in 2012, after having abruptly stepped down five years before. But this is all part of a broader issue in Japan. The World Press Freedom index placed Japan at a pitiful number 72 out of the 180 nations ranked, falling short of such bastions of free thought as Tanzania, Serbia and Mongolia. (In case you’re wondering, Finland is number 1, and the U.S. finds itself at an unenviable 41st place … for now.) In fact, Japan slipped 11 places in the rankings in just the past year.
But just six years ago, Japan was number 11 in the world. What happened? Freedom of the press is enshrined in the Japanese constitution even more directly than in the American one, where it takes the form of an amendment. But nevertheless there are a number of regulatory restrictions in Japan that hamper that freedom, and some of them are chilling in the degree to which journalists or government whistleblowers can be punished or imprisoned for speaking out.
This tension reverberates far beyond just NHK. It is felt throughout the national news apparatus. In early 2016, for example, three TV anchors were removed from their positions as part of a crackdown on alleged media bias. Under such circumstances, it should come as no surprise that journalists are censoring themselves in order to maintain access within Japan’s notoriously cliquey press club system.
Of course, if you think TV news is too corrupt to be a trustworthy source of information, there is always the print media. Japan is home to well over 100 daily newspapers, including some of the highest circulation papers in the world. It’s true, newspapers still have to navigate the increasingly strict rules imposed by the Abe government, but to some extent at least they can report the news as they see fit. And there are a variety of viewpoints available in print at your local newsstand.
Two of the biggest newspapers in the world are Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun. (Shimbun, 新聞, just means newspaper.) Their respective circulations eclipse such publications as The New York Times or USA Today, at least in print form, although Japanese papers have been accused of oshigami (押紙), or exaggerating their numbers by oversupplying to businesses. Asahi Shimbun leans left, and frequently takes an anti-government tone, while Yomiuri Shimbun is center-right. Mainichi Shimbun, another high-circulation daily, falls center-left.
Beyond these mainstream papers are scores of local dailies, as well as smaller papers printed up by political parties and the like. For example, the Japanese Communist Party prints Shimbun Akahata, which literally means Red Flag Newspaper. The JCP has an English language webpage, but their newspaper does not. Their paper tends to lean far left in its opinion pieces. Surprise. Sankei Shimbun, meanwhile, leans so far to the right that in February 2015 they printed an op-ed piece by author Ayako Sono, in which she advocated racially segregated residential neighborhoods for foreign workers in Japan. Mrs. Sono’s goal was to keep Japanese society free from disgusting foreign influences, and she helpfully cited South African apartheid as a good example for Japan to follow in setting up these ghettoes.
It’s heartening to see that such a wide variety of viewpoints can coexist in the press here, even given the firm hand the Abe government has taken with journalists. Maybe in a couple of years we can make a comparison with whatever becomes of the American news industry.
In the meantime, I’ll continue watching NHK news every morning, if only out of fear that if I stop, their terrifying mascot Domo-kun will eat my face like a rabid chimp.