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Number 1 Shimbun

When the Osaka Media Took the Lead

 

 No1-2017-04Kago2Man in the news:
Moritomo Gakuen's Yasunori Kagoike, speaks at the Club after testifying at the Diet on March 23

A local story exploded into a national one – pushing Osaka's journalists to make it their own.


by Eric Johnston

I

t began as just another Osaka land deal gone bad, a local story pursued by local reporters, of interest only to local readers and viewers. Why had the school managed to purchase a piece of property from the government valued at ¥956 million for a mere ¥134 million?

But when the scandal surrounding Moritomo Gakuen, a private educational firm advocating a nationalist, prewar educational system, reached the Prime Minister’s Office, suddenly, what was once an “Osaka story” was now very much something larger. And when Yasunori Kagoike, the firm’s head, gave sworn testimony to both houses of the Diet on March 23 – followed immediately afterwards by a press conference at FCCJ – the story went from large to huge, with inflammatory allegations from Kagoike about the political support, and abandonment, of his cause by the PM’s wife as well as Osaka politicians. These were followed by strong denials by those he named, the result of which has been less, not more, clarity.

Japanese media coverage of Moritomo Gakuen, its educational philosophy and the parade of political figures who have found themselves caught up in it, all the way up to and including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie, is a good example of the different approaches toward covering political scandals in Tokyo and Osaka. Reasons for these differences often have to do with the basic editorial structure and corporate culture of the media organs themselves. But they can also be due to local politics, by which “local” means not only Osaka but also “local” political reporting in Nagatacho.

 

Japanese media coverage of Moritomo Gakuen is a good example of the different approaches toward covering political scandals in Tokyo and Osaka.

 

Developing a chronology of when, exactly, the Moritomo Gakuen scandal became news is difficult. Some media commentators point to initial reports in the local media last summer that questioned if Moritomo’s new elementary school, which was originally due to open on April 1 this year but is now postponed indefinitely, was financially sound. On the other hand, as long ago as 2012, Osaka prefecture authorities had relaxed the restrictions on establishing private schools in general at a time when only Moritomo Gakuen appeared to be pushing for the rules to be eased.

For the most part, mainstream local media didn’t explore too deeply questions about who, exactly, was behind the school. Not that some connections were a secret. One of the more prominent politicians supporting Moritomo’s educational philosophy was Takeo Hiranuma. Though now back in the Liberal Democratic Party, Hiranuma and his close ally, former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, tied up with former Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto and his followers in 2014-2015 to form the first version of Nippon Ishin no Kai.

The political alliance between Hiranuma, Ishihara, Hashimoto and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui would break up in late September 2015, just a few weeks after PM Abe absented himself from a contentious Diet debate on security to make a quick trip to Osaka, where he appeared on a Yomiuri Telecasting program. That same day, it was later learned, representatives from a firm hired by Moritomo met with local Finance Ministry officials in Osaka.

What exactly was said at the meeting is unknown as the Finance Ministry admitted during Diet questioning in February that notes from the meeting had been thrown away. Abe returned to Tokyo that same day. But the next day, his wife Akie spoke at Moritomo Gakuen’s kindergarten, where she was introduced as the new elementary school’s honorary principal. Akie would keep that title, and her face and greetings would be on Moritomo’s website, until the scandal broke and she resigned.

A LOCAL NATIONAL STORY, OR A NATIONAL LOCAL STORY?

Unlike the Tokyo-based media, major newspapers or television stations in Osaka lack what political reporters in the nation’s capital would recognize as a Political News section. Traditionally, the Osaka beat meant covering economics or social issues as well as metro issues like crime and the courts. Reporters were attached to Osaka prefecture and Osaka city press clubs, but their approach to politics was purely local.

Under local editors and producers, they have historically produced a style of reporting that can be more feisty and critical of government policies than the political hacks in Tokyo, but also more wonkish. Many Osaka reporters, at least in the print media, who are ostensibly covering politics have written books on local government policies. It’s quite different from the often celebrity-driven, “who’s up and who’s down?” ruling and opposition party games type of reporting that so obsesses Tokyo-based political pundits and reporters. Osaka media suck up and report the most minute and mundane details about municipal sewage disposal and water treatment, corporate zoning, the city tax code, health and welfare policies for the elderly, or the safety of local public transportation systems. Talking grand political theory and strategy with politicians or their staff or trading gossip over late-night drinks is not their first priority.

 

Osaka media have historically produced a style of reporting that can be more feisty and critical of government policies than the political hacks in Tokyo, but also more wonkish.

 

That changed somewhat when Toru Hashimoto and Ichiro Matsui decided to take their Osaka-based Ishin movement to the Diet by tying up with Ishihara and Hiranuma to form Nippon Ishin no Kai. Suddenly, reporters in Osaka were asking questions in local press clubs about national and international developments and the party’s position on everything from historical tensions between South Korea and Japan over the comfort women issue to how Hashimoto and Matsui viewed constitutional revision and the role of Japan’s self-defense forces. For Osaka reporters used to quiet press conferences on very local issues and unfamiliar with the way their Tokyo colleagues covered the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Diet, dealing with the outspoken, highly opinionated and often volatile Hashimoto in particular was an unprecedented challenge.

They would learn, however. By February, over a year after Hashimoto retired from local politics, the Moritomo scandal was breaking. It would be propelled forward by Osaka media types who were very much outsiders to Tokyo’s political establishment yet who now had the experience of dealing, often aggressively, with Hashimoto and Matsui on countless occasions. As bizarre as it sounds, Hashimoto’s constant criticism of the local media, his long harangues during press conferences where he went after newspapers like the Asahi and Mainichi that disagreed with him appears to have made some of them better reporters – tougher and more thorough.

TAKING ADVANTAGE OF TOKYO MEDIA’S INSULAR VIEW

So, in the beginning, when the rest of Japan considered the Moritomo story a local one at best, Osaka’s reporters had no competition from their Tokyo affiliates. Of course, while they aggressively pursued some questions, especially the detailed financial aspects of the story that could be confirmed if one searched the public records, other subjects were talked about in the press room but not always displayed prominently on the front page. These included questions like who else, besides those who were public supporters, might be involved in the scandal, and where the money to fund Moritomo Gakuen might be coming from.

Still, what was striking about the Moritomo scandal was the extent to which the Osaka media drove the story in the beginning and the extent the Tokyo media attempted to play it down, hoping it was nothing more than an early spring blizzard that would blow hard for a day or so and then calm down. That began to change in late February as it became clear there was a lot of smoke at Moritomo, even if nobody could quite see the actual fire just yet, and the Tokyo media, especially the television media, picked up the coverage.

 

What was striking about the scandal was the extent to which the Osaka media drove the story in the beginning and the extent the Tokyo media attempted to play it down.

 

It was also surely no coincidence that two of the more prominent members of the Democratic Party who were keeping the issue alive, Kiyomi Tsujimoto and Tetsuya Fukuyama, were from the Kansai region (and in Tsujimoto’s case, the electoral district bordering the one where Moritomo Gakuen is located). At the same time, Osaka media reporting sometimes defied the expectations of media experts who might pigeonhole one media group or another. When even Osaka-based Yomiuri Telecasting and the local affiliate of Fuji-Sankei, Kansai TV, began asking hard-hitting questions about Abe’s role in the scandal, it was clear this was a story that was not going to peter out quickly. On the other hand, Tokyo-based pundits and well-known announcers at both networks continued to urge caution about Kagoike’s claims. Especially when he told a group of visiting Diet members that Abe had, through his wife, donated one million yen, a claim she assiduously denies..

As I write this in late March, how the Moritomo Gakuen scandal will end is unclear. For the Osaka media, Kagoike’s allegations and the realization this is not just another story for the metro section has led to a more cautious approach to the reporting, and once again, a return to looking at local angles – starting with how and why Moritomo got such a huge discount on the land it purchased. In addition, those who cover the Osaka courts, the police, the prosecutors’ office, as well as the city and the prefectural governments, are expected to be quite busy as angry parents sue Moritomo, businesses file suits to get their money back, and opposition politicians in Osaka prefecture demand investigations into what happened. This will take place regardless of what happens to the prime minister or members of his Cabinet because Moritomo Gakuen is still a “local” Osaka story, even if it now has national implications.

Eric Johnston is a staff writer with the Japan Times. The opinions expressed within are his own and not necessarily those of the Japan Times.

 

 

 

Published in: April 2017

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