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Seeing 2015 through a fragmented media lens


Special To The Japan Times

Media literacy means understanding that objective reality is impossible to comprehend, and that the best you can do to make sense of the world is to know how to interpret signals. Part of that process is identifying what’s at stake: Newspapers and broadcasters have parties they think they need to please, politicians constituents to woo, businesses customers to serve. In 2015 the means of mass media continued to fragment, resulting in a greater abundance of conflicting messages, as well as a greater potential for revealing truths — one of which is that TV is less relevant than ever.

Media topic of the year: Anti-government demonstrations

Although they’ve been increasing for years fueled by disillusionment with Japan’s nuclear energy policy, protests in front of the Diet building and the prime minister’s residence exploded this year thanks to the organized actions of the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDS), whose English moniker’s ironic resemblance to that of a certain ruling party went unremarked. Though the mass media tried to ignore these whippersnappers with their rap-like chants and artless disregard for power, social media brought them to the attention of the public, so even public broadcaster NHK was forced to acknowledge them, while trying to play down their effectiveness in fighting the government’s contentious security legislation.

The initial queasy coverage was a symptom of the media’s 1960s hangover. Back in the day, when these kinds of demonstrations were numerous and unavoidable as news, they were proof that Japanese youth took the postwar concept of democracy seriously. But after the government had enough of it, it all went south so quickly and with such devastating results that for the next 40 years, anything that smacked of anti-establishment activism was treated with caution, if not disdain.

Today’s student movement knows their forebears’ failure was at least partly a matter of negative PR purposely turned into conventional wisdom: Change is scary. And once the media started covering the demonstrations in earnest, they found that the participants were not the leftist monolith they expected, but instead represented a wide range of ages, vocations and agendas. What they all had in common, however, was disgust with smug authority.

Media figure of the year: Takeshi Onaga

The governor of Okinawa did just what he promised he’d do while campaigning for the job: fight the central government’s plan to build a new base for the U.S. Marine Corps in the coastal area of Henoko.

Tokyo says it is constructing the base because residents farther south in Futenma have protested the presence of the current Marine Corps base in their midst for years, a position that disregards the gist of the complaint voiced by Onaga and, according to most media surveys, shared by the Okinawan people: They don’t want the base at all.

In a real democracy, that would be enough to close down Futenma and preclude any further base construction, but, as this year’s extended observance of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II has amply illustrated, Okinawa has never been afforded the privileges of self-determination that democracy promises — not by the Americans who ruled over the island for almost 30 years, and not by Tokyo, which has obscured its imperious actions behind a scrim of self-serving atarimae (common sense) pronouncements: “The Japan-U.S. security alliance is a fact of life,” and so on. And since the Japanese media is headquartered in Tokyo, they’ve taken this position at face value. Onaga has compelled them to reevaluate that stance.

In addition to being more stubborn than his predecessors, the governor has exhibited a shrewd grasp of how to bypass officialdom by going directly to the Americans themselves. Part of the success of this strategy was demonstrated when U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy’s statement last week hailing the progress at Henoko was quickly met with a protest letter from dozens of well-known American intellectuals, who asked if she really knew what she was talking about.

Quote of the year: “I was driving a Crown and then got invited to ride in a Century.”

Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori used this metaphor at a news conference in July to explain why he, as the head of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, approved the now-discarded national stadium plan by architect Zaha Hadid. Though most media interpreted the curious simile — the Crown is one of Toyota’s top-line sedans, while the Century is its limousine model — as being about Hadid’s ostentatious design, it probably had more to do with the cost, which was so extravagant that the current prime minister stepped in to cancel it. To someone like Mori, who as a politician was groomed to appreciate the value of a white elephant, high cost was the whole point of the project. How could he resist such an invitation?

Most valuable player: Videonews.com

Freelance journalist Tetsuo Jinbo’s subscription Web news service has all the hallmarks of a vanity project: low-budget production values in service to a format centered on Jinbo chatting with other reporters and “experts” on relevant news topics. The fact that it’s been around for 15 years and hasn’t grown substantially may indicate a lack of penetration in a media environment still characterized but no longer dominated by free advertising-fueled outlets and NHK, whose subscription model is obligatory.

On the other hand, the fact that Videonews is still around in an Internet environment where anything goes should say something. To my mind, ¥500 a month to see genuine journalists talking frankly and at length about the day’s stories is a bargain.

TV commercial of the year: Daiwa Securities

Hollywood actor Ken Watanabe walks into a bar sporting a fedora and a serious expression. The proprietress is immediately taken with his “lonely wolf” allure. He orders a drink and says he doesn’t care about money. She purrs, “That’s so sexy,” and leans her head on his shoulder. When he adds that he has a stock portfolio, her ardor is inflamed. Tip to single guys: Time deposits are for chumps.