TOKYO–Reporters without Borders (RSF) recently pulled Japan 11 notches down from an already pretty low 61st to 72nd in 2016’s 180-country World Press Freedom Index. RSF states that “many media outlets, including state-owned ones, succumbed to self-censorship, especially vis-à-vis the prime minister, and surrendered their independence.”

RSF’s comment seems largely based on the resignation of three prominent Japanese TV newscasters in March. They left their posts amid worries that pressure from the government and conservative groups were causing news organizations to avoid or soften reporting on controversial subjects — such as a recent bill easing constitutional curbs on Japan’s military. One of the newscasters worked for state-owned NHK.

The newscasters, whose views sometimes conflicted with the government, enjoyed undeniable popularity with their TV audiences. They departed in the annual spring program shakeup. Japan’s Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, Sanae Takaichi had said previously in February that news outlets that fail to remain “politically neutral” in their coverage might have their broadcast licenses revoked under Japan’s Broadcasting Act.

Rush to judgement?

But I’m not sure RSF’s claim meets journalistic standards. The government interpretation regarding the neutrality requirement has no support within the mainstream media. Moreover, the practice long predates the current Abe administration. What’s more, the offending government claim was only offered in response to questioning from Japan’s parliamentary opposition. If matters ever come to a legal head, there’s always Japan’s undeniably independent judiciary to turn to — where the broadcasters can receive a fair trial. This, with the entire media in Japan and abroad looking on to boot.

By far the most popular and influential newscaster of the three has since stated in no uncertain tones that he left of his own accord, and against the wishes of the network, because he wanted to do something new and different. And the NHK newscaster still has another regular program. As for the third, let’s wait for the smoking gun instead of relying on assumptions.

Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is steeped in what passes for nationalism in Japan these days, did put Katsuto Momii, an affable and eager-to-please businessman with no media experience in place as NHK’s chairman. But if the chairman had a voice in the newscaster change (he’s not supposed to), there’s been a remarkable job done to prevent leaks to say the least.

Conservative prime minster Abe has also put people of his liking on NHK’s board of governors. They include a private tutor from his childhood But a couple of conspicuous hardliners have also been dropped, so things look no worse (or better, depending on your point of view) than in 2014.

Besides, the governors are pure outsiders with day jobs. Any pressure from these quarters would be even harder to keep from disgruntled employees who would then leak the information to outsiders. Besides, even if NHK were to be compromised, there would still be the five other major broadcasting networks. Each is part of a giant multimedia group that includes a newspaper company with a national daily as the senior partner.

Japan’s ‘Big Five’ media

The Japanese mainstream media is dominated by the five multimedia groups, together with NHK and the two national wire services. (The wire services are important because the local dallies, who typically lap up half of the local subscription market, rely on them.) Collectively, they can impose desirable policy outcomes whenever their vital interests are at stake. Broadcasting was off-limits when commercial bandwidth auctions in Japan were discussed, and networks continue to pay only nominal fees for broadcasting rights.

Japan newspapers

Subscription newspapers will be exempt from the next consumption tax hike if and when it happens. This gives them an advantage over the rest of the print media and Internet operations. (Their subscription-based revenue model has historically cast a pall of ambivalence over their cyber-strategies, but this is another story.)

Then there are the “kisha” or reporters clubs, where dominant media organizations account for almost all memberships. This gives big media unrivaled formal and informal access to the leadership of most Japan’s public and private “establishment” institutions.

Reporters clubs, for example, are attached to each government ministry. Such access would be difficult to cultivate independently since reporters are rotated every couple of years or so from club to club. Woe betide to those who challenge their prerogatives.

I harbor the (unproven) suspicion that indifference and in some cases, naked hostility to mainstream media priorities on the part of the Democratic Party of Japan and its junior partners was a contributory factor in the near-annihilation of their 2009-2012 regime. For political leaders, the mainstream media are there to cultivate, not to intimidate.

The real concern


It would be nice if the story ended there. But the institutional bedrock under the government-mainstream media relationship worries me, particularly when the leaders of the mainstream media routinely sit on senior government councils and entertain themselves with the prime minister.

The Japanese mainstream media are highly resistant to the hard power and the more coercive means of soft power that authoritarian regimes routinely resort to. But isn’t it also true that the soft power of privilege, convenience, and, yes, assimilation will surely take its toll? That should be the real concern of Reporters without Borders, and that’s another story, a story for which I’ve run out of space.

Jun Okumura is currently a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. He is a 30-year veteran of the Japanese civil service. During his career with the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry, he took part in several bilateral and multilateral negotiations, including UNCLOS II and and the Uruguay Round as the lead METI negotiator for trade in services. He headed METI’s Trade Finance Division during the Asian financial crisis. As president of JETRO New York, he worked with the Japanese consulate and business community to assist evacuated businesses and their employees in the aftermath of Sept. 11 2001.

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