October 2022

Shinzo Abe was no friend of the free media

Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force personnel fire cannons in the grounds of the Nippon Budokan during the state funeral for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Guests from Japan and overseas gathered to attend the ceremony. Photo by Rodrigo Reyes Marin - All Rights Reserved

Shinzo Abe's relationship with the media came under scrutiny long before he became prime minister. On 29 January 2001, the then deputy chief cabinet secretary met with senior producers from NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, to discuss an upcoming documentary on Japan’s war crimes. The documentary was subsequently eviscerated, triggering "deep and disturbing questions … about the capacity of the Japanese media to maintain political independence," noted Tessa Morris Suzuki, an Australian historian, in her detailed account of the NHK affair.

Conservatives had for decades bemoaned bastions of “leftist2 journalism, particularly in NHK and the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s flagship liberal newspaper, and blamed them for masochistically raking over the past, and for contributing to the erosion of LDP influence. In 1993, for example, as the party cast around for scapegoats for its first loss of power since 1955, it settled on TV Asahi. Party strategists concluded they had underestimated the influence of a new breed of mouthy, unconventional anchors, particularly Hiroshi Kume of TV Asahi’s News Station. TV Asahi’s director of news seemed to confirm this when he boasted (in a private meeting) of his network’s power to swing public opinion against the government. The LDP took note.

There could have been little surprise, therefore, when Abe turned his attentions to the media on his return to office in December 2012. One of the new prime minister’s first moves was to install four conservatives to NHK’s 12-member board, including Naoki Hyakuta, a popular author with strongly revisionist views on World War II. Katsuto Momii, NHK’s new president, had no broadcasting experience and quickly asserted that NHK’s role was to reflect government policy on key issues in now notorious formulation "when the government is saying right, we cannot say left". Rarely confrontational, NHK pulled in its horns further.

The LDP wrote to television bosses in 2014 demanding political impartiality. In 2016, the communications minister, Sanae Takaichi, threatened to close television stations that flouted rules on impartiality amid a major political row about the near simultaneous departure of three liberal TV anchors from the airwaves. All three, Ichirō Furutachi of TV Asahi’s Hōdō Station, Shigetada Kishii of TBS, and Hiroko Kuniya, who had helmed NHK’s investigative program Close-up Gendai for two decades, were comparatively robust critics of the government.

A fierce domestic debate ensued about the extent of government ‘pressure’ exerted on the media. More notable was Abe’s silence on the right of the media to report freely - whatever his problems with specific outlets - as we might expect from the elected leader of a democratic nation. Instead, there was bitter criticism of perceived media enemies. 

In 2014, after the Asahi Shimbun withdrew several articles on wartime ianfu or "comfort women" (which used discredited source Seiji Yoshida), Abe and his base used the long-overdue retraction to improbably blame the newspaper for starting the entire comfort women controversy, including the 1993 Statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yōhei Kōno that had acknowledged the Japanese military’s role in herding the women into brothels and the 2007 US House Resolution 121, which called on Japan to "formally acknowledge and apologize". "Many people were hurt, saddened and angered by the Asahi's false reports," that "damaged our honour around the world," Abe said, blaming the messenger.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Abe knew how to work the media . Political commentator Chiki Ogiue revealed that Abe was in frequent contact with media executives, often dining at exclusive restaurants in Tokyo, or even at the offices of the Yomiuri Shimbun. He appeared regularly on television, particularly during his second cabinet, on popular variety shows and was willing to be interviewed by sport newspapers (or tabloids), while shunning liberal rivals. He was photographed with entertainment stars and comedians. 

With the backing of conservative and popular media, he popularised the phrases "Abenomics" and "Promoting the Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens" (ichiou-sou-katsuyaku). He and cabinet members dramatically cut their exposure to open press conferences where they might face unscripted questions. The LDP effectively boycotted the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Asia’s oldest foreign press club, from 2014, after Eriko Yamatani, chair of the National Public Safety Commission, was grilled there about her alleged links to a far-right pressure group. This happened partly because the club refuses to provide scripted questions. Concurrently, the government’s global PR budget was dramatically expanded under Abe.

The Abe government also minted several laws, notably the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets (or the state secrets law), which took effect in 2014 and the Conspiracy Law of 2017, which were widely criticised for their potential to restrict the flow of information and harm freedom of expression. Though the secrecy law has yet to be seriously tested, theoretically it allows reporters to be charged with revealing state secrets, which are vaguely defined. 

Did all this add up to historic repression of press freedom? In 2016 roughly halfway through Abe’s tenure, Japan’s ranking in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index fell 11 places to 72 out of 180 countries, though the ranking is perennially slighted for being quixotic and unreliable (Japan currently ranks 71). Freedom House, an American thinktank, also noted reports of "government pressure on media outlets to refrain from critical coverage". UN Rapporteur David Kaye warned of "serious threats" to the independence of the media, and singled out self-censorship, declining media independence and a lack of "professional solidarity" among media organisations. "A significant number of journalists I met feel intense pressure from the government, abetted by management, to conform their reporting to official policy preferences," Kaye said after interviewing about 100 journalists and editors. 

The official reaction to Kaye’s report was hostile. Koichi Hagiuda, the deputy chief cabinet secretary, said his findings were based on "hearsay". A draft of his report was leaked to the right-leaning Sankei Shimbun, which took offence at this finger wagging by a foreigner. A more confident response might have been to allow Japan’s comparatively robust media freedoms to speak for themselves. 

Despite this record, it was reliably asserted that Japan still had the freest media in Asia. True, Japan is hardly China. The mainstream media, in particular the mass circulation Mainichi Shimbun, have critically reported on LDP links to the Unification Church since Abe’s assassination in July (though such links were ignored for years). The Internet is more or less unrestricted. The weekly media, led by Shukan Bunshun, claimed a string of political scalps during the Abe years. In 2020, Bunshun reignited one of the most serious scandals of Abe’s tenure when it published a suicide note by an official who had been ordered to falsify Finance Ministry documents, apparently to protect Abe and his wife. The so-called Moritomo scandal erupted in 2017 when the firm that ran Moritomo Gakuen, an ultra-nationalist kindergarten, bought a plot of public land in Osaka city for about 14% of its value and began building a primary school to propagate right-wing ideas. It invoked the name of Abe when soliciting donations. Abe’s wife, Akie was named honorary head teacher.

Abe denied any involvement in the land sale and pledged to quit if anyone could prove otherwise. Few believed him, thanks to critical media scrutiny of his actions. Whatever else might be said of Abe’s term in office, he can hardly be called a friend of the free media. 

David McNeill is a former correspondent and now professor of communications at the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo.
Kaori Hayashi is a former journalist and now professor of media and journalism studies at the University of Tokyo.