On Feb. 29 a group of veteran journalists held a press conference to protest communications minister Sanae Takaichi’s comment that the government could shut down broadcasters if their news programming was deemed to be politically biased. Former Mainichi Shimbun reporter Shuntaro Torigoe said that Takaichi’s remarks were “tantamount to a (declaration of) war between political power and the media.”
Many believe Takaichi’s remark is an attempt to intimidate press outlets the government sees as being critical of its policies. It’s interesting that Takaichi was the person who delivered the message since she was once on the other side of the media divide. In the late 1980s and early ’90s she was often invited by TV programs to comment on current affairs, so when she ran for public office her name and face were already established in the public imagination.
Torigoe is suspicious of her credentials as an expert, which are based on her stint as a Congressional Fellow. According to Takaichi’s resume, in 1987 she went to Washington, D.C., under a special program to work for Rep. Patricia Schroeder, and later wrote a book about her experience, which, in turn, led to the pundit jobs. Torigoe says it isn’t clear what she did in Congress. Some media have implied that all she learned under Schroeder was how to operate a Xerox machine.
Doubts about Takaichi’s “qualifications” have a direct bearing on the current controversy surrounding DJ-cum-news commentator Sean McArdle Kawakami, a self-styled management consultant who admitted that his own CV contained “errors” after Shukan Bunshun ran an article outlining the “lies” he has peddled about his academic background, which included an MBA from Harvard Business School and a stint at the Sorbonne. In recent months Kawakami has appeared on a number of news and information shows, including TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” and Fuji TV’s “Tokudane,” expounding on current events. Fuji TV, in fact, was about to launch a late-night news series centered on him.
The gist of the controversy has been Kawakami’s subterfuge, but his swift rise in the world of TV punditry, like Takaichi’s almost 30 years ago, has more to do with the industry’s emphasis on appearances. In hindsight some have said that Kawakami’s commentary is the kind of thing anyone could produce after a cursory reading of the day’s headlines, but that’s what pundits do on TV, which, in principle, abhors spontaneity. Producers and on-air talent, even on news shows, prepare outlines together beforehand. If Kawakami’s pronouncements were blander than those of others who sit in those seats, he nevertheless presented them in a comprehensible manner and a pleasant voice. His good looks were just gravy.
These are the qualities TV producers desire; maybe even more so right now with the perceived government crackdown on reporting critical of the administration. Kawakami was safe since he wasn’t provocative, but he needed something that sold his brand and, given the choice, producers will take Harvard/Sorbonne over a less prestigious scholarly pedigree, even if someone with the latter has a more stimulating rhetorical style and a deeper understanding of the subject at hand.
Kawakami exploited the economic theory known as “signaling,” which, according to a recent article in Aera, is especially effective in Japan. Signaling is useful for employers when they decide whether or not to hire a fresh university graduate. They evaluate a candidate based on “signals,” such as the university he or she attended and that school’s hensachi, or “deviation value,” which indicates the difficulty level of getting into the school.
Makiko Nakamuro, an associate professor at Keio University who writes about the economics of education, told Aera that signaling has a stronger influence on Japan’s labor market than do so-called human capital parameters, which predict potential productivity based on the content of the education the candidate received. Employers are either unable or unwilling to gauge a recruit’s acquisition of skills and knowledge, and so rely on the reputation of the school itself, which gives the employer an idea of the amount of effort the student exerted to get to this point.
Effort in this situation is not just measured in blood, sweat and tears, but also in money. Aera interviewed a 47-year-old working mother who attended elite schools and now works for a financial services company. She is determined to send her son to top-flight private schools only, and currently pays ¥90,000 a month for tuition. She says that your gakureki, the list of schools you attended, “shows that you grew up in a well-off family” and made the appropriate effort. “Can you think of any other way to judge someone’s worth objectively?” she asks the Aera reporter.
At this late date, the fact that academic performance in Japan still has little to do with grades and everything to do with which entrance examinations were passed sounds trite. Some years ago, Sony made headlines by announcing it would downplay gakureki in its hiring of new graduates, but nothing has changed. A 15-year-old boy recently committed suicide when he thought his counselor would not recommend him for a “good” high school because the counselor mistakenly thought he had committed a misdemeanor some years ago. Even at his age, the boy believed his life was over if he didn’t get into the right school.
Kawakami felt it was necessary to make up a past of suitable accomplishments in order to reach a higher plane in the media world, though it should be noted that for more than 10 years he was a radio personality specializing in economic topics, and according to people who worked with him, none knew or cared about his gakureki. It wasn’t until he started appearing on TV that producers made a big deal of it. Had Bunshun not uncovered his deception, he’d probably still be on TV talking about the news, and no one would have been any the wiser.