Nationalism, nuclear power and Japans fragile media opposition

Author: Tobias Weiss, Zurich University

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, public support for the Democratic Party of Japan vanished. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won a majority in both houses of the Diet. In the absence of an effective political opposition, the liberal media have sought to fulfil this function.

Asahi Shimbun CEO and President Tadakazu Kimura bows in apology during a press conference at its head office in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, 11 September 2014. The newspaper admitted that its May article on the so-called Yoshida file concerning the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was incorrect and retracted the article. (Photo: AAP)

Japan’s big media companies were criticised after the Fukushima incident for underreporting the risks associated with nuclear power. This triggered a surge in investigative journalism. Asahi Shimbun — the leading liberal newspaper with a readership of around eight million — in particular put pressure on the government and the nuclear industry. After Abe’s election, Asahi criticised him not just on nuclear power but on other aspects of his conservative agenda like the Special Secrecy Law, which many believe is an attack on press freedom.

But the newspaper world has become polarised into two ideological camps: the pro-nuclear camp led by Yomiuri Shimbun and the right-wing Sankei Shimbun, and the anti-nuclear camp of Asahi, the Mainichi Shimbun and the Tokyo-Chunichi group.

Asahi came under heavy fire from its right-wing competitors for its criticism of Abe and failure to defend the ‘national interest’. Abe is under pressure due to rising doubts about his economic strategy ‘Abenomics’ and in need of good news on the reinvestigation of Japanese abduction victims. But a string of allegations against Asahi has lessened the pressure on Abe and threatened the critical role of the media.

Sankei has launched a campaign against Asahi’s reporting on the ‘comfort women’ issue, which led the newspaper to re-examine an older series of articles on the topic. It was revealed that one source for this series, a former soldier known by the pen name Seiji Yoshida, had made false testimonies. Asahi had half-heartedly re-evaluated the articles after doubts about Yoshida’s statements arose. Criticism of Asahi intensified after it withdrew the articles but stuck to its critical stance against Imperial Japan’s system of wartime military brothels.

Sankei’s campaign was flanked by attacks from right-wing internet users and weekly journals rampant with nationalism. The magazine Shūkan Shinchō claimed Asahi made ‘100 million Japanese the victims of fake reporting’. Yomiuri joined in, claiming Asahi had ‘burdened postwar Japan with a negative legacy in an unprecedented manner’. Yomiuri, Japan’s largest newspaper, seems to have seen this as a chance to attract nationalistic customers, after losing over 600,000 of its 10 million readers in just half a year. Abe himself also claimed Asahi had ‘damaged Japan’s good name’.

Further revelations have weakened Asahi’s position. A popular media commentator made public that he was not allowed to criticise, in his own Asahi column, what he considered the paper’s lack of an apology regarding its reporting of Yoshida’s false testimonies on ‘comfort women’ and announced he would cancel his column in protest. Under pressure, Asahi caved and printed the critical column. Still, Sankei started printing calls for the dismantling of Asahi.

Another defeat for Asahi followed. After obtaining a copy of testimony given before a closed government panel by the manager of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant Masao Yoshida, Asahi reported that during the accident the majority of workers violated his orders and fled to another plant 10 kilometres away. However, Sankei revealed it had also obtained the testimony and challenged the notion that the manager’s orders were disobeyed. It accused Asahi of ‘making the world believe that Japanese ran away from the accident’.

Asahi’s CEO apologised and announced it would withdraw the article, saying the order had not been circulated. Rather, the workers left on the orders of TEPCO staff subordinate to the manager who had interpreted his statements as an evacuation order. Asahi’s CEO subsequently also announced he would reform the newspaper, punish the journalists involved and possibly step down after handling the scandal.

While Asahi has undoubtedly made errors, neither incident requires a complete re-evaluation of the issues at stake. In spite of Seiji Yoshida’s false testimony, the evidence is unequivocal that among the women sent to Japanese military brothels there were large numbers of Koreans and many were recruited forcibly. Equally, even if orders may not have been directly disobeyed, it doesn’t change the fact that large sections of the power plant’s staff had left the facility and the management considered it dangerous to stay.

So what is motivating the Asahi bashing?

Right-wing media groups, such as Sankei, believe the media must defend the ‘national interest’.

The Abe administration appears to share this view. Abe appointed Katsuto Momii as director of NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, who remarked that public broadcasting should not act against the government. Abe also appointed five members to NHK’s twelve-member board. One of them — a right wing novellist — has participated in the Asahi bashing. Abe himself has, in his time as deputy cabinet secretary in 2001, been at the centre of a scandal concerning press freedom at NHK. He met with managers of the channel, ‘expressing his views on the comfort women issue’, the day before the airing of a critical documentary. The managers ordered the production staff to change the content. This episode took place weeks before the NHK-budget was to be decided in the parliament and it led the Japanese Broadcasting Ethics Organisation to call for more distance between production and politics at NHK.

Since 2012, Japan has dropped 31 places on the index of press freedom and now ranks 53rd out of 177 countries. The real issue underpinning Japan’s media wars seems to be whether news media that criticises the government can publish freely in an increasingly nationalistic climate. The answer remains to be seen.

Tobias Weiss is a PhD candidate at Zurich University, Switzerland. His research focuses on Japanese media and nuclear power.