May 3 marks the United Nations’ World Press Freedom Day, an annual reminder of the necessity of unfettered media in the maintenance of healthy societies.
This year the day is more important than ever as, around the globe, attacks on press freedoms remain rampant — including the killing of reporters in Syria, Mexico and Afghanistan, mass arrests of journalists in Turkey and China. and President Donald Trump’s ongoing skirmishes with the media in the United States.
Despite having constitutional guarantees of press freedom, Japan, too, has experienced a significant decline in recent years. Last month, NGO Reporters Without Borders ranked the nation at 72nd in the world, the lowest among the Group of Seven countries. Unchanged since last year, the current ranking is still a steep drop from 2010, when it held the No. 11 spot.
Now, for the first time, an English-language book, “Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan,” explores the reasons behind this fall. Consisting of 21 chapters written by journalists and academics, the book is divided into five sections, including examinations of legal issues, history and public diplomacy.
Many of the authors highlight three main obstacles to press freedom in Japan: the specially designated secrets law, pressure from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration and the issue of self-censorship.
Passed in 2014, the secrets law establishes penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment for journalists who encourage civil servants to leak information — it is widely seen as an attempt to control data related to the ongoing nuclear crisis in Fukushima and the construction of the new USMC mega-base in Nago, Okinawa.
Alongside this law, according to the book’s authors, the current government and some of its cronies, such as former NHK chief Naoki Hyakuta, have clamped down on media freedom by pressuring TV stations to remove hosts seen to be critical, lambasting the media for negative coverage of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and urging the destruction of Okinawa’s outspoken newspapers.
Exacerbating these problems, as U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye explained in 2016, is a culture pervasive throughout much of Japanese corporate journalism and the kisha (press) club system that encourages reporters to tone down their own criticism of the powers-that-be.
At the core of “Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan,” there are roughly a dozen well-argued chapters. Among the best of these, political scientist Koichi Nakano explores how demands for media impartiality stifle legitimate criticism of the government.
In another persuasive chapter, Meiji University law professor Lawrence Repeta and reporter Yasuomi Sawa discuss how journalists’ attempts to hold corporations and the government to account can be hindered by laws and customs that promulgate anonymous society.
Two other chapters stand out: Hokkaido University’s Philip Seaton’s comparison of NHK’s coverage of World War II anniversaries in the years 2005, 2010 and 2015, and an exploration by Temple University professor Jeff Kingston, who also edited the book, of the Japan lobby’s attempts to influence public opinion and decision-making overseas.
Only one complaint can really be leveled against these chapters: their brevity. While reading them, the reader is left wishing the authors had been given more room to stretch their legs and expound on their topics and ideas.
Alongside such standout chapters, some of the others fall flat. Several rehash the same old arguments without adding anything pertinent to the debate; others wander off topic and end up only tenuously related to the issue of press freedom.
Were the rest of the book more comprehensive, these failings might be excusable — but unfortunately a handful of key issues are missing from its pages.
Most disappointing — especially given the book’s titular promise to be “contemporary” — is the failure to address the impact of the internet and social media on press freedoms. Recently, a plethora of online magazines, blogs and live-streaming services have given the public the power to challenge the dominant narratives of the mainstream media. On one hand, with particular regard to the 3/11 nuclear disaster and Abe’s moves to dismantle the pacifist Constitution, technology has allowed alternative journalism to flourish, magnifying the public’s interest in politics like no other time since the 1960s. But the same technology has allowed misinformation and hate speech to intensify — especially against Koreans, Chinese and Okinawans.
Also absent from the book is an exploration of how online journals (such as FACTA) and weekly magazines (such as Shukan Bunshun) are the true bastions of investigative journalism in Japan. Such publications run the political gamut but regardless of their ideological leanings, their scoops often push the envelope of press freedom and have a very real impact on the political landscape by toppling corrupt elected officials.
To give a fuller sense of press freedom in 2017, space ought to have been dedicated to these issues. There are many excellent Japanese media experts and it is unfortunate their talents were not tapped to pen chapters for this book.
Despite these gaps and the book’s uneven contents, overall “Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan” is a compelling work that paints a troubling picture of the state of the nation’s media. For academic and general readers, it provides a strong introduction to key issues and potential paths for further research; for those in the media, its clear view of the current battlefield will empower us to plan solid counterattacks to ensure that 72 is as low as we allow this country’s ranking to go.