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Number 1 Shimbun

Standing Tall

Three representatives from Tokyo's most fearless publications point to self-censorship and lack of interest as reasons for the sad state of hard-hitting journalism in Japan.


by Gavin Blair

T

he Japanese media has been accused of pusillanimity in the face of recent pressure from the Abe government, and for traditionally having less inclination to tell truth to power than its counterparts elsewhere. On May 18, a trio of journalists for whom such timidity is not an issue came to the Club for a roundtable talk about their own experiences and the current Japanese media landscape.

Shigeo Abe is the founder and publisher of FACTA, the subscription-only investigative business monthly that came to the notice of many by breaking the story that would lead to the Olympus scandal. Abe continues to do the kind of in-depth reporting sorely lacking these days – not only in the Japanese media, but also in much of the world. Before the session, a translation of an April FACTA article on the Nikkei newspaper group’s recent takeover of the Financial Times was handed out. The article details how the deal was partly funded by the government-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation, suggests the Abe regime was a force behind the acquisition and claims the Nikkei has no realistic prospect of making a return on the investment or paying off the debt it has accrued.

 

"The newspapers and TV stations aren’t in good shape financially, so it’s a business decision not to have reporters chase risky stories, which are expensive and can lead to legal action"

 

Shukan Bunshun has become the Japanese weekly to watch this year, scooping the competition and breaking big stories on betting by baseball players and pop institution SMAP’s near break-up, as well as bringing about the resignation of economic minister and Abe ally Akira Amari over a bribery scandal. Much of the credit for the series of circulation-boosting scoops has gone to Editor-in-Chief Manabu Shintani, who pointed out that the more mainstream media deliberately avoided such stories.

“The newspapers and TV stations aren’t in good shape financially, so it’s a business decision not to have reporters chase risky stories, which are expensive and can lead to legal action,” said Shintani. The biggest celebrities managed by the major jimusho (talent agencies) are usually “untouchable” for the TV stations in terms of negative coverage due to fear of reprisals, he said, including having stars from the roster of the same agency pulled from the offending network.

The three journalists stated they had never caved to pressure by the government, and two of them recounted instances when they were targeted.

Shintani said a member of the prime minister’s office telephoned him over the Amari articles. “I got a call from someone saying that the person who gave Amari the money was also a bad guy, so we should take it easy in what we write about the minister. I replied that taking money from a bad guy is worse and they kind of acknowledged that was true,” said Shintani. “We went ahead and ran the articles as planned.”

FACTA’s Abe said he was approached directly by a well-known former minister and pressured to stop writing articles about the alleged organized crime links of a public figure, though he refused to do so. (Abe named the individual involved, but requested it be kept off record.)
  

The three journalists expressed varying degrees of skepticism about reports from international organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders, that have downgraded Japan’s press freedom rankings, and all cited self-censorship as the major issue.

Maki Tahara, who writes for the Tokuhobu section of Tokyo Shimbun, which is known for its outspokenly critical features on government and big business, pointed to shifts in the character of both reporters and readers as other factors. “The mentality of young journalists is less aggressive and rebellious than ours used to be. It’s part of a societal trend
. . . reporters are not a special breed apart from everyone else. It’s a headache for me,” said Tahara, who suggested their readership was also less interested in scoops and articles bashing the government than in the past.

Abe also expressed dismay at the lack of temerity among much of the domestic media. “I was at the Mitsubishi Motors press conference at the transport ministry and none of the reporters asked the questions they should have been asking,” he said. “The most important question was about whether or not the head of R&D actually knew about the falsification of the fuel efficiency tests, whether he was lying. None of the 200 journalists there asked that question.” Abe was not allowed to ask questions, as he is not a member of the ministry’s kisha club and was attending as an “observer.”

 

Regarding the comments by communications minister Sanae Takaichi that TV networks could have their licenses revoked for broadcasting “biased political reports,” Shintani chided the media for its tame response.

 

Moderator Tetsuo Jimbo pointed out that the kisha club system has become more restrictive again under the Abe regime, after being relaxed under the previous Democratic Party of Japan government, when non-club members were allowed to ask questions.

Regarding the comments in February by communications minister Sanae Takaichi that TV networks could have their licenses revoked for broadcasting “biased political reports,” Shintani chided the media for its tame response. Shintani said he told colleagues in the TV industry that they should look into Takaichi’s background and run reports on her, or start programs titled “Testing the Broadcast Suspension Limits.” Shukan Bunshun’s own response was to run an article titled “Why we Hate Takaichi.”

Asked about whether there were any taboo subjects even for the seemingly fearless Shukan Bunshun, Shintani conceded that negative articles about the imperial family were pretty much off-limits. “It’s because it would provoke a loss of trust from our readers and the wider population rather than the threat from nationalists . . . we are a Japanese magazine and we love Japan.”

Gavin Blair covers Japanese business, society and culture for publications in America, Asia, and Europe.

 

 

Published in: June 2016

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