Media shifts make Japan harder to read

Author: Michael Cucek

A viewer of television news in Japan has long enjoyed a wide variety of news programs, with six large terrestrial networks competing with one another for viewers. Competition encouraged a mild but sincere form of specialisation, with particular news organisations framing the facts in a manner pleasing to a particular constituency.

Since formation in September of a Democratic Party of Japan-dominated government, a strange phenomenon has made itself manifest. On any given night one can flip back and forth between the Fuji TV and Nippon TV networks and find the two newscasts nearly identical. The clothing and the sets change but the editorial stance, the rumors, even the vocabulary, are nearly indistinguishable.

This is a new development. Until the August 2009 election, Fuji TV, part of the Fuji Sankei Group, and Nippon TV, owned by the Yomiuri Shimbun, offered the news in distinct flavors. Fuji Sankei Group news, which includes the Sankei Shimbun newspaper, offered conservative iconoclasm with a bias toward free markets and a gnawing worry about the growing power of China. As such, Fuji Sankei news reporting found itself frequently at odds with Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government decisions. In contrast, Yomiuri-flavored news was strictly conformist conservatism. It nearly always agreed with the current administration’s polices, excluding the period when Koizumi Jun’ichiro was prime minister.

But since the ouster of the LDP from power, the two formerly separate identities have grown closer to each other. Tobias Harris has already documented the glee at Sankei Shimbun when editors realised the LDP’s election loss made them a candidate to be the voice of the opposition. The Yomiuri Shimbun, bereft of the government it saw itself as serving, seems to have reversed its previous caution about printing every rumor, plausible or otherwise, it receives in its inbox.

The consequences of this shift toward a unitary conservative voice are appearing in the non-Japanese press. Both the Economist’s article on the Fujii resignation and Blaine Harden’s account of the purported emergence of Ozawa Ichiro from the shadows in the Washington Post show a lack of skepticism toward story elements trumpeted by the emerging unified Fuji Sankei/Yomiuri opposition news. The explanation that Fujii quit because of a lost policy battle with Ozawa, rather than due to his own frail constitution, and that he was terrified of being called to testify in the Diet about a financial scandal involving Ozawa, are reported as fact. It is ignored that Fujii had sworn he would give up politics last summer, only to be begged by Hatoyama to run again via a campaigning-free position on the DPJ’s proportional list.

The Asahi Shimbun‘s position in the new order is an ambiguous one. It is frequently characterised as being a center-left publication. But this conventional wisdom is wrong. The Asahi aspires to be a non-partisan publication seemingly modeled on The New York Times. Along with its affiliated but independent TV Asahi network it has tried to maintain a near Olympian position, criticising the current government for failing to live up to what most ordinary persons would consider impossible standards. According to its alleged center-left political bias,  The Asahi Shimbun should be gentle on the new government, the paper having waged a long, bitter war against LDP rule. But the paper has been sharply critical.

In trying so hard to remain above political partisanship, the Asahi editors have had trouble avoiding the trap of false equivalence. Given the length of the new government’s tenure it is impossible that every DPJ foible is equal to the multitudinous sins of the LDP. By failing to take the extra step and saying ‘we remain suspicious of the current leaders but at least they are better than continued rule by their predecessors,’ the aggressively skeptical reporting of the Asahi has worked hand-in-glove with the now strictly partisan reporting of their conservative competitors.

The strong anti-DPJ government stance of the Mainichi Shimbun, oriented towards the working-class, is inscrutable, at least from a readership standpoint. The owners seem convinced that the antagonistic segment of the media market can support three players. Unfortunately, Yomiuri and Sankei are set to dominate this segment. An aggressive anti-government, anti-Ozawa position only threatens the Mainichi group with ever greater marginalisation. Because the Mainichi Shimbun still maintains a translation department, a peculiar luxury for a downscale news organisation, its aggressive reporting and editorials have gained international stature out of proportion to its status in the domestic media market.

The shift in news reporting has not gone universally against the government. While the Asahi Shimbun and TV Asahi have struggled to find an admirable independent stance, the national newscaster NHK has surged forward to become the government’s most supportive news conduit. But this shift is not out of flattery to the new power in the capital. NHK lived in terror of government retaliation during the LDP years and so its staff did its best to avoid offending the government.  Freed from the threat of potential retaliation from the LDP, NHK news has responded by working with the new DPJ government to rapidly dismantle the intellectual edifice that had kept NHK cowed and the LDP in power. NHK and its legions of talented reporters are now free to report what they know – and they know plenty.

The relative durability of the Hatoyama Cabinet’s popularity becomes less perplexing when one understands the power of NHK’s 7 pm and 9 pm newscasts have in determining the national conversation. After reading the translated reports from the major newspapers one would conceive the popular mood in Japan as fixedly anti-Ozawa and anti-Hatoyama, with lament over the results of the August election. Despite serious ongoing investigations of financial fraud in the political offices, of both the prime minister and the secretary-general of the DPJ, the government and the party still enjoy a large measure of public support.

Foreign reporters in an ideal world would have long memories, notice the rapid shifting about among Japanese media, and adjust their sourcing accordingly. But with most non-Japanese media organisations cutting staff or leaving Japan entirely, the world is relying more and more on unfiltered retransmission of what Japanese media outlets are producing. Rather than giving a clear view of what is going on in Japan, this direct transmission has reflected the prejudices and weaknesses of the news outlets, resulting in the broad dissemination of reporting which is potentially more harsh and negative than the on-the-ground reality would require.

Michael Cucek is the senior research analyst at Okamoto Associates, Inc. He offers commentary on Japan’s politics and society through his blog ‘Shisaku‘.