There is a breed of political reporter that thrives on misanthropy. These journalists have no use for empathy when trying to understand issues or individuals. They are only stimulated by acrimony, by the need to reveal the darkest impulses of human endeavor. H.L. Mencken, the most eloquent of this ilk, once wrote that “there is actually no truth to be discovered … only error to be exposed.” Hunter Thompson, the most scabrous, said, “In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught.”
In light of his now infamous article for Shukan Asahi about Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, former Yomiuri Shimbun reporter Shinichi Sano seems to aspire to membership in this club. Sano makes no attempt to hide his enmity toward Hashimoto, whom he characterizes as a small-hearted opportunist, a lawyer who spun a backstory of up-from-poverty success into a career as a shameless self-promoter and demagogue. He likens TV’s fascination with Hashimoto to that of a cult in thrall to some charismatic charlatan, and in the tradition of the misanthropic press implies that the masses are stupid for showing anything but contempt for the mayor. He compares Hashimoto to another recent populist, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, but whereas Koizumi’s statements and actions revealed “an antic belief system,” Hashimoto’s reveal nothing except “an animal compulsion” to be liked. As for his political supporters, Sano calls them “scavengers, scum.”
The general opinion that’s built up around Sano’s article, “Hashishita Yatsu no Honsho” (“The True Nature of That Guy Hashishita,” an alternate reading of the characters that make up Hashimoto’s name), since it was published Oct. 16 is that it’s a hatchet job. It’s certainly provocative on purpose. Sano writes that he has no interest in Hashimoto’s political principles (“which never change”) or methods, but rather his character. Hashimoto overcame “an ungifted environment” through “his own efforts.” Such a history is usually cause for admiration, and Hashimoto plays up that aspect, but Sano hardly even recognizes it. What Hashimoto’s accomplishment produced is “an intolerant personality” that “doesn’t acknowledge opposition.” For that reason alone, he is unfit for politics, because he cannot accept any criticism or inquiry into his personal life. Sano is telling the reader that the article itself is meant as an affront to Hashimoto, a test of his ability to stand up to the kind of scrutiny that people in the public eye have to address constantly. But rather than engage such scrutiny, Sano says, Hashimoto usually retires to Twitter and rants against his detractors “like a petulant child.”
One could say Sano got what he wanted. Hashimoto, deeply offended by the article, specifically Sano’s references to his background, forced Shukan Asahi to issue an apology and suspend publication of subsequent articles in the series. “I am a public figure,” Hashimoto said at a news conference Oct. 18. “But it is unacceptable to disclose my past, referring to ancestors, relatives and DNA, as a basis to deny my integrity as a human being.”
Though some commentators derided Sano’s injudicious but imaginatively rendered analogy of Hashimoto’s political ascendancy with that of Adolf Hitler’s (“I can hear Hitler screaming from his grave, ‘I’m not as contemptible [as Hashimoto]‘ “), the main cause for condemnation was Sano’s quoting of two anonymous sources who mention Hashimoto’s father’s upbringing in a community of burakumin, the social caste that still faces widespread discrimination based on nothing more than ancestry. It is taboo to identify burakumin neighborhoods in the media, which Sano did. Hashimoto says that Sano’s “analysis” theorizes that the mayor’s most objectionable qualities are those he inherited from his father, who was not only raised in a burakumin area but became a career criminal and drug addict and died by his own hand.
It’s difficult to imagine a journalist as experienced as Sano, even one with an axe to grind, exploiting blood prejudices to make a point. After all, he’s the man who wrote the definitive biography of Masayoshi Son, CEO of SoftBank and Japan’s most powerful zainichi (Korean national resident) individual. Sano’s investigation into Hashimoto’s parentage is meant to explain not what Hashimoto is capable of becoming, but rather what he lives with. A member of a buraku defense group interviewed last week by Tokyo Shimbun said he objected to Sano’s equation that “buraku equals yakuza equals fascism,” but that’s not a fair assessment. Sano wants to talk about how the legacy of Hashimoto’s father, a man he never knew, has influenced his character, not genetically but psychologically. Sano is treading a slippery slope, but personality profiles of this kind are common.
Since Hashimoto has his own axe to grind when it comes to the perceived elitism of any publication with the name Asahi attached to it, there was no way he would let the profile stand. What has dismayed media pundits is that Asahi, both the magazine and the parent company, caved to his aggrieved response, seemingly because it was afraid of being shut out of Hashimoto’s press entourage. By calling Asahi editors “savages” and saying that Sano’s article destroyed his family, Hashimoto comes across as woefully thin-skinned for someone who aspires to major political office, especially when you think of the racially charged insinuations that U.S. President Barack Obama has to contend with on a daily basis.
Even more troubling is that Hashimoto’s response and Asahi’s apology effectively reinforce ugly prejudices. The former implied that being associated with burakumin is repulsive, while the latter stated it was “inappropriate” to discuss the matter, but airing the burakumin issue is the only way the poisonous atmosphere surrounding it will ever be dissipated. Regardless of the worth of Sano’s article, the reactions of Hashimoto and the Asahi have set the course of social and political progress into reverse.