Media redraw battle lines in bid for global reach


Something significant happened in April that attracted only desultory press coverage, so let’s give it some more.

GPlus Media Co., which operates English-language websites Japan Today and GaijinPot, was sold to Fuji TV-Lab, a subsidiary of Fuji Media Holdings Inc. The Fuji Media group has the Fuji Television Network under its wing, as well as the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun as an affiliate.

This matters to Japan’s resident non-Japanese (NJ) communities. Fuji TV was recently caught fabricating subtitles falsely quoting South Korean commenters as “hating Japan” (Japan Times, June 29). That’s an incredibly dishonest thing for a nationwide broadcaster to do, especially when it may have a nasty impact on Japan’s Korean minorities.

However, the Sankei Shimbun as a newspaper I believe is no less nasty.

Over the past 15 years, for example, they have run articles grossly exaggerating foreign crime (see “Generating The Foreigner Crime Wave”, Japan Times, Oct. 4, 2002), a column claiming that Chinese had criminal “ethnic DNA” (May 8, 2001, written by regular columnist and former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro “let’s fight a war with China” Ishihara) and an opinion piece by Ayako Sono on Feb. 11 that praised the racial segregation of South African apartheid as a model for Japanese immigration policy.

The Fuji-Sankei group offers pretty much unwavering support to the country’s right-wing causes and talking points. They are further right than the Yomiuri — and that’s saying something.

Before I get to why we should care, let’s look briefly at the existing landscape of the nation’s English-language media. (I focus on the English-language press because Japan’s own ruling class does — to them, English is the world language, and Japan’s portrayal in it is of intense concern.)

In addition to The Japan Times (the country’s oldest English-language newspaper, independent of any domestic media conglomerate), other English papers at one time included The Daily Yomiuri, The Asahi Evening News and The Mainichi Daily News.

The last three were all “vanity presses,” in the sense of major Japanese media empires using them to feel self-important in the international arena. They had Japanese bosses, managers and editors who had in-house Japanese-language articles translated for the outside world. And, yes, they were for outside consumption — Japan’s English-language readers were never numerous enough to sustain four daily newspapers!

They were complemented by Kyodo and Jiji wire services, piggybacking on print media with articles that had also been translated from Japanese. In my experience working with all of them, their general political slants were: the Yomiuri squarely rightist, the Asahi and Jiji center-right or center-left (depending on the editor), and the Mainichi and Kyodo generally leftist.

Regardless of their political bent, most of these presses during the late 1980s and ’90s employed NJ as reporters doing English articles. Granted, these articles did not necessarily appear in their Japanese flagships — vanity newspapering means information about Japan goes outward, not inward; NJ were never allowed to touch the controls, and seldom were their articles translated into Japanese. However, they did offer foreign voices to foreign residents.

It was a renaissance, of sorts: NJ reporters often reported on issues germane and beneficial to NJ residents. Not only was there lively debate in English, but also there were some boomerang benefits — for example, overseas newspapers (such as the almighty New York Times, the bete noire of Japan’s elites) picking up their stories and shaming Japan’s policymakers into making changes (for example, the abolition of fingerprinting on Alien Registration Cards in 1999).

However, this dynamic has shifted dramatically toward disempowerment over the past 15 years. According to one employee I have talked to, The Daily Yomiuri relegated its NJ staff to doing puff pieces on Japan before making them mere interpreters of Yomiuri Shimbun articles. The Asahi Evening News did the same, according to another former employee, purging its foreign bureau before they could unionize. The Mainichi Daily News, whose popular WaiWai column translated the country’s seedy tabloid journalism, was bombarded by Internet trolls decrying this apparent embarrassment to Japan; the paper then fired its best writers.

When the shakeups subsided, The Japan Times had raised its price and trimmed its pages, and the English versions of the Asahi and Mainichi had ceased their print publications entirely. The Daily Yomiuri renamed itself the anodyne “The Japan News,” an attempt in my opinion to whitewash its right-wing image. However, the upshot was vanity presses stopped carrying out investigative journalism in English and only hired NJ as translators.

Frozen out of major Japanese media, NJ have created their own community presses. Japan has long-running newspapers for Koreans, Chinese and Brazilians. Regions such as Fukuoka, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Sapporo and, of course, Tokyo have all launched their own local-content magazines (with varying degrees of success). And that’s before we get to the online fora and fauna. However, aside from offering events and outlets for aspiring authors, none have the national and international media footprint that online news site Japan Today has (where, full disclosure, I also worked as a columnist).

That’s why GPlus Media’s buy-up matters. This is an era of micromanagement of any media criticism of Japan (even NHK Chairman Katsuto Momii on Feb. 5 admitted publicly on that his network will not report on contentious subjects until the government has “an official stance”; in other words, NHK is now a government mouthpiece). Meaning this buy-up is another outsider’s voice being effectively silenced — and another rightist platform empowered.

Of all the major newspapers, only the Sankei Shimbun never had an English channel. That is, until now. And it’s not hard to guess how things will soon swing.

Already I am hearing murmurs of Japan Today’s moderators deleting reader comments critical of Japan’s media, anti-Chinese and anti-Korean sentiment, Fukushima investigations, and the revamped U.S.-Japan security arrangements.

Then again, that’s within character. To them, what’s the point of owning media if you can’t control its content?

However, the content is problematic because it is increasingly propagandistic. On June 16, for example, Japan Today reprinted an article from RocketNews24 (another Japanese media outlet devoting lots of space to puffing up Japan) on “the decline of Koreatown” in Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo district. It blamed, inter alia, bad Korean food, the actions of the South Korean government toward disputed islands and bad South Korean management practices.

It discounted the domestic media’s popularization of kenkan (“hatred of things Korean”), which a search of Amazon Japan demonstrates is a lucrative literary genre. It also made no mention, of course, of the off-putting effects of periodic public demonstrations by hate groups advocating that people “kill all Koreans.” Essentially, the thrust of the article was: Koreatown’s decline is due to market forces or it’s the Koreans’ own fault. How nice.

However, I shouldn’t just pick on the Sankei. The other major national Japanese newspaper we still haven’t mentioned — the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei) — also appears to be getting in on the act.

According to MediaWeek, the Nikkei bought into U.K. media group Monocle in 2014 in order to, according to its CEO, “further boost its global reach.” In June, Monocle declared Tokyo “the world’s most livable city,” and Japan Today dutifully headlined this as news. All purely coincidence, of course.

The point is: The country’s rulers understand extremely well the crucial role of the media in mobilizing consent and manufacturing national image and narrative. In this current political climate under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who appears to be venomously opposed to any critical thinking of Japanese society, the last independent voice in English is what you’re reading now.

The Japan Times is the only sustainable venue left with investigative NJ journalists, NJ editors and independently-thinking Japanese writers, bravely critiquing current government policy without fretting about patriotism or positively promoting Japan’s image abroad.

Long may The Japan Times stand. Long, too, may its columnists, ahem, as I have here for more than 13 years. However, Just Be Cause has for the first time felt pressure (with this column) after coming under increased scrutiny in the editing process. The Community pages have within the past 18 months been reduced from four pages a week to two. How much longer before they are sanitized or cut entirely?

This is why I encourage all readers to support The Japan Times. Send appreciative emails to the editorial desks. Have your school, university, library and community centers subscribe to it. Get it from the newsstand or buy an online subscription. Click on its advertisers. Invest in it — however you can.

If The Japan Times succumbs to economic and political pressures, who else will lend NJ residents a sympathetic voice, maintain a free online historical archive to thwart denialists, or offer a viable forum that serves NJ interests? Nobody, that’s who. Support the last man standing.

Debito’s own 20-year-old historical archive of life and human rights in Japan is at www.debito.org. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears in print on the first Monday of the month. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Steve Jackman

    I agree, The Japan Times is a beacon in the desolate landscape of Japanese media. It is truly a world class newspaper and we should all support it. Viva The Japan Times! Long live The Japan Times!

  • Mohamed Boussetta

    Gambare Japan times!! i’m a big supporter

  • zer0_0zor0

    GPlus Media was a CIA-front company, and now that they’ve been bought out by a right-wing media company in Japan after being exposed, there is a strange sort of distopian poetic justice emerging on the horizon.

  • zer0_0zor0

    A number of prominent journalists, mostly with Asahi back when it was a viable organization, were assassinated by right-wing extremists or organized crime groups they had criticized, exposed, etc.

    Those same groups have links to the LDP, which has had links to the CIA since its beginning.

    I understand that that just begs the question…

  • Hendrix

    indeed Japan times is the last man standing…. but it wont be long before the rabid right wingers get their claws into Japan times… enjoy it while you can..

  • Greg Estelcherry

    I’d like to thank Arudou Debito for indirectly giving me the opportunity to address what I think may be the cause of any shortfalls the Japan Times may be suffering.

    I would suggest that the problem is not attributable to any concentrated campaign or groundswell on the part of that nebulous bugaboo ‘the right’ or ‘netto uyoku trolls’ but rather can be found within the editorial approach and inclinations of the writers of the Japan Times itself.

    For example, The Japan Times publishes Debito’s column. It’s not that I reflexively react negatively to any criticism of Japan but with Debito, and several other of your feature writers, it’s predictable, it’s stuck in one tone, it’s pretty much the same article rehashed again and again.

    The tone is reminiscent of university newspapers where journalism majors often are convinced that it is the primary mission of the media to change present society or to challenge the status quo (this could be a by-product of media but should never be its primary role). Reflexive ‘critique’ of the establishment becomes equated with critical thinking. When this happens, the pieces cease to be journalistic articles per se, not even stimulating commentary, but become something more akin to pamphleteering, aimed at a certain gullible demographic.

    In fact many of the Japan Times pieces to me seem morally bossy – one might as well have bolded, ‘Get Outraged Here!’ or ‘Be Alarmed by This!’ pull quotes added to the text (although judging by most of the comments, easily-influenced readers seem happy to oblige the hammer-your-head sentiments of the articles).

    The upshot of this is that for a number of Japan veterans such as myself, and I know I am not alone in my beliefs, many of these themes seem like rehashed expat barstool motifs that were already getting tired back in the 90’s. If some substantial critical insight or approach were added it might catch the attention of those of us well versed in things Japanese, but all too often in the Japan Times it is the same old motifs utilizing the standard stereotypes, with the same overly simple solutions being expressed.

    If the Japan Times attempted to show a bit more finesse in its analysis, knowledgeable Japan residents might be inclined to read further. As it stands now though I, and many others I know, will choose to take our business elsewhere.

    • etchasketch

      Agree 100%

      If the Japan Times folded tomorrow, all I would really miss are their columns on language and the occasional film review. Everything else can be found elsewhere.

    • J.P. Bunny

      “…..take our business elsewhere.” Aside from a monthly column that I think is a waste of space, the Japan Times is something I look forward to every morning. As for myself, the only elsewhere is some digital / online news deal, which I don’t use. A real physical newspaper that I can read at my pleasure, (no electronics needed), is the way to go.

    • Bruce Chatwin

      “something more akin to pamphleteering, aimed at a certain gullible demographic” But Greg Estelcherry is far more intelligent than all those gullible plebes; I mean he gets his news and commentary from reliable sources.

      “If some substantial critical insight or approach were added” Perhaps by someone who comments under a pseudonym such as Greg Estelcherry?

      “As it stands now though I, and many others I know, will choose to take our business elsewhere.” But that will not stop us from using the digital version of the JT to post our poisonous comments tearing down others and at the same time showing how oh-so-clever we are.

      Jones, Arudou, Kingston? They are all useless hacks when you compare them to some guy who posts in the comments section under a pseudonym like Greg Estelcherry.

    • Toolonggone

      Go ahead and write a question to the JT, if you are curious. But, if you think their struggle solely attributes to the publishing of the articles written by small number of authors, you are completely overlooking the significant impact of digital transformation on news and journalism.

    • Steve Jackman

      Greg Estelcherry, you do not speak for me or most other long term foreign residents of Japan. The Japan Times is an invaluable source of objective and independent news, opinion and commentary on Japan for us. It is professional journalism at its best, with the highest level of integrity.

  • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

    Calling the other newspapers “vanity presses” is a bit rich; at least when they translate, they translate their own stories rather than rely on wire copy or iNYT inserts. As the David McNeil notes in FCCJ’s Number One Shimbun in May, the physical JT has become quite thin (from 15 to now 12 broadsheet pages) recently and is not filled with original journalism (mostly feeds from Kyodo, etc).

    You want to help Japan Times survive? Here’s what you do: don’t buy a subscription or click on an ad: buy a backpack. You know those little plastic snap buckles on your backpack? Yep, that’s actually what pays the editors’ salaries and keeps the lights on, not the paper.

    Nifco’s official English description of its business is

    NIFCO INC. is a Japan-based manufacturing company primarily engaged in synthetic resin business. The Company operates in three business segments. The Molded Synthetic Resin segment manufactures and sells industrial plastics, fasteners, plastic precision molding components and molds. The Bed and Furniture segment is engaged in the production and sale of beds, as well as the import and sale of furniture. The Others segment is engaged in the publication of newspapers, as well as the purchase of accounts receivables and other businesses.

    If you look at Nifco’s financial statements (available in English for every quarter), you’ll see that (1) its plastic parts and bed business is profitable and (2) it’s “Others” business (where the Japan Times vanity project is hidden) is tiny compared to its two other businesses, runs at a loss, has run at a loss for some time, and is only getting worse.

    I imagine the only reason Nifco’s shareholders have allowed the tax-dodging (according to JT’s own reporting) owners to keep this little pet project is because the other businesses are large and profitable enough that the bleeding from the newspaper business is not noticeable enough.

    But the minute they have an off-quarter, some shareholders are probably going to insist that Nifco divest itself of money-losing “distractions” that are not part of its main businesses that it’s actually good at and has a future.

    Nobody that is sane would buy a niche newspaper (a dying business in the 21st century internet) with a tiny circulation, so I imagine what will happen is a English conversation school chain or a tourism chain will buy it and convert it 100% into a English-practice guide for native Japanese (many of its JT’s current publications are already focused on this market) and a Japan travel guide, leveraging its primary revenue sources (Japanese looking for English practice and hotels catering to foreign tourists)

  • http://durf.org/ Peter Durfee

    The entire raison d’être of Internet-based business is to build something of value, sell it for a pile of money, and move on to the next project. Rather than phrase this whole affair in sinister tones and the passive voice (GPlus was sold to nefarious Japanese purchasers!) why wouldn’t you mention Peter Wilson and Erik Gain and their (entirely natural, imo) role in the deal?

  • Toolonggone

    Like it or not, English-language media is a niche market in Japan. Especially those publihsed by Japanese mainstream newspapers have been considered secondary or an aid to articles written in Japanese. This is unfortunate, because it primarily reflects on socio-demographics of readers which over 97% of those are Japanese (many of those loyal subscribers for many years). And Japanese mainstream media are having a hard time to make ends meet since many readers are switching from hardcopies to the online news with free access (with some exceptions for articles on paywall). This trend is not unique in Japan. In the US, for example, NYT and WP trimmed the size of daily newspapers several years ago by slashing book reviews or any other literary critique for cost-cutting scheme. Newsweek is not selling its hardcopies anymore. Corporate monopoly is also responsible for the demise of printing media as many of those suddenly stop publishing local news. Instead we are seeing an increasing amount of advertisements in both online and printing. It is understandable that media need funding and they owe their sponsors gratitude. But too much corporate intervention in news media is problematic since 1) they have political partisanship (having ties with powerful brokers or national lawmakers); and 2) they can control media in any way they want by throwing $$$ to establish their own agenda.

    My best wishes to the Japan Times to keep what it’s best for them to stay afloat in a challenging Japanese media landscape.

  • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

    This article claimed that

    Fuji TV was recently caught fabricating subtitles falsely quoting South Korean commenters as “hating Japan”. … That’s an incredibly dishonest thing for a nationwide broadcaster to do, especially when it may have a nasty impact on Japan’s Korean minorities.

    However, the use of the word “fabricate” and “dishonest” is misleading and inaccurate. According to Japanese news sources (such as Asahi Shimbun [June 29 14:51], which is considered to be a liberal left leaning newspaper), it is true that the subtitles displayed on the video clip did not match the words spoken on the edited clip by the Korean speakers, which is bad, and the broadcaster apologized for this mistake.

    HOWEVER, according to the same left-leaning newspaper, the subtitles were not “fabricated” (which means to create or make up in order to trick people); it was what the two shown Koreans said in the whole original unedited source video. What happened was when the when the raw video, translated in its entirety, was edited down for broadcast, the whittled down video became out of sync with the extracted subtitles/translation. Like printed journalism typos, that’s actually a fairly common video post-production editing mistake.

    If readers were have read original Japanese sources (either politically left or right wing Japanese news), they would know the true nature of the mistake and not be misinformed/misled about what happened with Fuji TV’s subtitles.

    This is not the first time that this particular English column has misinterpreted, misunderstood, or not fully read, original Japanese language source news stories. So perhaps a bit of a shakeup / competition or more professional Japanese in the foreign language coverage of Japan is not a bad thing; the accuracy of the coverage might improve.