Prime Minister Suga

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s prime minister, speaks during a news conference at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021.​​​​​​​


Just before Christmas, the muckraking weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun speculated on the possible removal this April of Yoshio Arima from his role as anchor of NHK’s flagship evening news program News Watch 9.

During a live interview last October, Arima had asked Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to elaborate on why he had blocked the appointment of six science council scholars as advisors on government policy, reportedly as payback for their criticism of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.

“I think there are people who want an explanation about what is going on,” prodded Arima.

Observers noted that the atmosphere in the studio cooled as Suga treated Arima to his trademark hooded glare. “There are things that can be explained and things that cannot,” he said, cutting him off. Afterwards, Suga’s handlers allegedly bore down on NHK for asking an unscripted question.

The interview, and its possible denouement (ironically, the Bunshun piece makes sacking Arima more difficult) may sound familiar. In 2014, Hiroko Kuniya, who had anchored NHK’s investigative programme “Close-up Gendai” for two decades, was also removed following an uncomfortable encounter with Suga.

The weekly press then, too, blamed Kuniya’s downfall on an interview in which she asked the then chief cabinet secretary an impromptu question on the possibility that new security legislation might mean Japan becoming embroiled in other countries’ wars.

Arima’s predecessor, Kensuke Okoshi was also allegedly ousted after a clash with a member of the Abe government.

The near simultaneous departure of Kuniya and two other liberal TV anchors from the airwaves, Ichiro Furutachi of TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station”, Shigetada Kishii of TBS (all comparatively robust critics of the government) sparked a major political row and drew global attention to the Abe government’s attempts to cajole and coerce the media.


“It’s not a free press if it is all pre-arranged.

But that’s how it works:

the bureaucrats are in control of 99% of what happens in Japanese politics”



Expectations that Suga might improve relations with the press corps were low, therefore, when he succeeded Abe in September 2020. If anything, he has been worse than predicted, says Kaori Hayashi, a media scholar at the University of Tokyo. “I think the situation has exacerbated under Suga,” she says. “Abe was talkative but Suga just tries to avoid questions and manage what to say. He has no opinions at all.”

These qualities are laid bare during Suga’s press conferences on the coronavirus pandemic, which often seem closer to stenography than journalism. His non-answers and repeated use of the phrase “I would like to refrain from responding” has become a mocking internet meme. Observers note his apparent nervousness at the lectern, and how be clams up or lashes out – his stock phrase is “Your point is irrelevant” – when pressed to explain government policy.

“The prime minister seems to believe that the role of press conferences is to unilaterally convey the government’s oven-ready thoughts,” says Toshiaki Hibino, a Kyoto Shimbun reporter and member of the Kantei press club. “New facts are rarely unearthed at these press conferences.”

Suga’s new role has exposed his lack of political skills, says one senior NHK journalist. “He was always thin-skinned, but it is now clear that he is a poor public speaker too.” To insulate himself from the growing flak about his pandemic response, he says, Suga sticks to prepared texts and carefully stage-manages his meetings with journalists.

Trusted reporters from the elite media are assigned in advance by Kantei bureaucrats. In most cases, says Teddy Jimbo, founder and CEO of Internet broadcaster Video News Network, Suga is literally reading his replies from a script.

Jimbo is one of the few reporters to ask a non-scripted question, at a live televised press conference in January. “I said, ‘All night you have you been asking us what we are prepared to sacrifice. My question is, what has the government been doing while asking for sacrifices. Japan has the largest number of hospital beds in the world, so why is our medical situation in an emergency?’”

The query, and the suggestion that the government was not doing enough to push the Japan Medical Association to convert more hospital beds to emergency use, seemed to throw Suga, recalls Jimbo. “He was looking at me very nervously and simply said, ‘I’ll look into it.’ I don’t think he understood the issue.”

The kisha clubs are hardly a new topic in Japan. But their role in stage-managing news has become starker as the ranks of freelancers and internet journalists grow. The only reason Jimbo got to ask the question at all, he speculates, is because the new Kantei press manager may not have known who he was. Jimbo reckons he got to ask just two questions in the seven-and-a-half years of Abe’s tenure.

“It’s not a free press if it is all pre-arranged. But that’s how it works: the bureaucrats are in control of 99% of what happens in Japanese politics,” he says.

Shut down

Suga earned his political spurs as Prime Minister Abe’s loyal enforcer during his record stint as the government’s top spokesman. His tenure was marked by terse encounters with reporters, and a renewed government focus on bastions of perceived liberal journalism, particularly in The Asahi Shimbun and NHK.

One of Abe’s first moves was to appoint four conservative allies to NHK’s board. Momii Katsuto, the corporation’s new president, had no broadcasting experience and quickly asserted that NHK’s role was to reflect government policy in a now notorious formulation: “When the government is saying right, we cannot say left”

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wrote to television bosses in 2014 demanding political impartiality. In 2016, the communications minister, Takaichi Sanae, threatened to close television stations that flouted rules on impartiality. There were skirmishes with reporters deemed “anti-government” and access granted to favored scribes.

Those who stepped out of line, such as Isoko Mochizuki, the spry Tokyo Shimbun reporter who became Suga’s nemesis during daily government briefings, were slapped down. In December 2018, for example, Mochizuki repeatedly questioned Suga on land-reclamation work in Henoko, Okinawa, where the government is building an offshore US airbase, mostly in defiance (as Mochizuki pointed out) of local wishes.

Mochizuki was harried throughout by the press club moderator to wind up her question. Suga grew increasingly irritated before shutting his briefing book, snapping back: “This is not the place for responding to your assumption,” and stalked out of the room. Suga then launched a campaign against Mochizuki for “spreading disinformation”.

The encounters between a dogged journalist determined to probe authority and a government accused of authoritarianism had a mythic quality that has appealed to some. Mochizuki was the subject of a 2019 documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Tatsuya Mori and is the fictional heroine of a drama called “The Journalist”, which won best picture at the Japan Academy Awards in 2019.


“In a democracy you need some ability to explain and demonstrate policy.

I don’t know if Suga can maintain his power while not explaining anything at all.”


Grudge match

The LDP’s distrust of the media has deep roots. In 1993, amid economic stagnation and corruption scandals, the party was drummed out of office for the first time since 1955. Party strategists concluded that they had underestimated television and the influence of a new breed of unconventional anchors, particularly Hiroshi Kume of TV Asahi’s News Station.

TV Asahi’s director of news Tsubaki Sadayoshi seemed to confirm this when he rashly boasted (in a private meeting) of his network’s power to swing public opinion against the government. The consequences of the Tsubaki Incident, rippled far into the future and demonstrated the ability of LDP elders to learn political lessons – and hold a grudge.

The FCCJ is part of LDP lore, too. In 1974, Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was grilled at the club over a weekly magazine article that accused him of corruption. It had been a tradition to invite sitting prime ministers to polite luncheons at the club, but Tanaka’s public humiliation – and his resignation a few weeks later – ended that.

In 2014, Suga agreed to a press conference at the FCCJ (after over a year of badgering) but then tried to turn it into a kisha club event by requesting questions in advance. When it was pointed out that the FCCJ could not work that way, he demanded the first question be agreed beforehand, then attempted to fill a one-hour event with a 45-minute monolog.

Suga has brought those hard-shouldered tactics into the Prime Minister’s Office, says Jimbo. “He is strengthening media control, using the same tactics, more thoroughly and completely.” Jimbo recalls that when a reporter recently asked a question that was slightly rephrased, “someone rushed over to complain and said the prime minister was very angry because the question was not the same. That didn’t happen that much under Abe.”

These attempts to throw a cloak over the government’s actions may not be working. Public approval for Suga’s government plummeted to 40% in January, according to an NHK poll, the steepest fall since Naoto Kan’s tenure a decade earlier

Unless his fortunes dramatically improve, Suga may return Japan to the tradition of revolving-door leaders that prevailed before Abe took office in 2012.

If that turns out to be the case, Suga’s poor communication skills and testy relationship with the media will be partly to blame, says Jimbo. “In a democracy you need some ability to explain and demonstrate policy. I don’t know if Suga can maintain his power while not explaining anything at all.”

● David McNeill is co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee and a professor at the Department of English Language, Communication and Cultures at Sacred Heart University in Tokyo. He was previously a correspondent for The Independent and The Economist newspapers and for The Chronicle of Higher Education.