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Danger lurks when self-restraint segues into media self-censorship

by Roger Pulvers

If I had to choose a word that characterized a good deal of Japanese social behavior it would probably be jishuku.

Jishuku’s English equivalent is “self-control” or, perhaps, “self-discipline.” The verb jishuku suru means “to restrain oneself” or “to keep a rein on one’s behavior.”

Much of the enviable harmony evident in Japanese society is undoubtedly due to jishuku — an ounce of which is clearly worth a pound of pressure.

This self-restraining quality accounts for many fine traits we see in this country, such as people generally not being overly self-assertive in a group situation. They are sensitive to the preferences of others for the very reason that their individuality is not tied up with gratuitous displays of self-esteem.

One of the central precepts of the tea ceremony is encapsulated in the expression ichigoichie. It means that every occasion for which people come together must be made special and unique as it can never recur just like it is. Whether this is made possible through enryo (reserve, deference) or jishuku, or a combination of the two, the particular form of hospitality in which a guest or customer is treated with an indulgent decorum is definitely a prized Japanese quality.

I wish some of this “indulgence of the other” would rub off on people in the West.

But every special trait has its downside; and, in Japan, the downside of jishuku is arguably no more blatantly apparent than in the media, where it often constrains a reporter or a news organ from going out on a limb. Even when that limb is well bolstered by facts, an editor might practice “self-discipline” and not allow a story to be aired or published for fear that rivals in the media or those in positions of power might level an accusation of “lack of self-control” — which in this case spells arrogance.

Consequently, many a revealing story has been killed on the spike of a version of jishuku that borders on weakness of character and insipid timidity.

A case in point was raised by journalist Akira Ikegami in the evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun on Dec. 14, 2009. The paper had earlier revealed that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had, in June, sent his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, on a secret mission to China as a special envoy. That was a scoop.

The rest of the Japanese media naturally scrambled to verify it. They immediately contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, which issued a statement denying there had been such a visit. Taking this as their cue, the various organs of the media in this country came down on the Asahi Shimbun with a vengeance, denouncing it for raising “false alarms.”

It wasn’t until NHK subsequently confirmed the mission — disclosing that the young Kim had not only traveled to China but had also met with its president, Hu Jintao — that the Asahi Shimbun story’s reporter was vindicated. In Japan, the truth will out, but only when someone else comes out for it.

“It seems that not until another media outlet later reported the same content,” wrote Ikegami, “was the work of the first reporter properly valued. What a bizarre thing this is.”

Blame this phenomenon on a surfeit of self-control. When the media begins restraining its staff by requiring that their rivals confirm a story before they themselves will publish it independently — that’s when the very independence of the media is called into question.

It’s bad enough having a politician/media baron like Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi suppress the freedom of the press. But when everyone in the profession has such suppression embedded in their own brains and keyboards, there’s no need for further controls from above.

So, the question presents itself whether jishuku really is voluntary, or is it imposed by society itself?

I remember well the so-called jishuku mood that took over Japan between the announcement, in September 1988, of the Showa Emperor’s illness, and his death the following January, exactly 21 years ago this week. Many city lights were dimmed or shut off, and a good deal of innocent merrymaking was discouraged and frowned upon.

At that time, the Chunichi Dragons baseball team won their Central League playoffs, but decided not to pour beer over their heads or hold a victory parade. Singer/songwriter Yosui Inoue’s very effective television commercial for Nissan cars included the line, “Is everybody fine?” The commercial continued to run, but that line was muted out. As well back then, the popular singer Hiroshi Itsuki canceled his wedding reception, and many people across the country followed suit and canceled theirs, too.

In short, it was considered improper and un-Japanese to be seen to be celebrating when the Emperor was in discomfort and pain. No government directive was issued; no bureaucratic regulation promulgated. Businesses suffered seriously. But people just felt they should lay low. The harmony of the community was, for nearly four months, restrained by a shared feeling of what is — and is not — socially “becoming.”

Certainly, many in the West have historically shared just such a sense of common impropriety. It may even be said that the Japanese adopted their notion of what is “becoming” from Victorian England. When her beloved Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria went into deep mourning. It was from this time that jet jewelry became so popular all over Britain. It was as if an entire nation went into mourning with her.

I have had personal media run-ins with jishuku as well. In the 1980s, I did a weekly spot on FM radio in Tokyo. When there were heavy rains in Nagasaki, I was told, before going on air, “Don’t mention the weather.” If a plane crashed somewhere, I was “asked” to exercise self-control: “Nothing about air travel today.” In other words, any talk deemed “unbecoming” was a no-no. I was required to practice self-restraint for my own good. Had I spoken on air about the wrong thing at the wrong time, I would have found myself off the air and out on my ear. Fair enough. Every society has its unwritten rules. I was happy to talk about the weather or air travel the following week.

Let’s return to the Asahi Shimbun revelation.

The Japanese media are known for their unheroic gutlessness. Investigative journalism in Japan is as rare as roosters’ dentures; and the only scoops you see are in the nation’s ice-cream parlors.

People often blame the bureaucrats and the politicians for creating restrictive rules in this society. But in reality, the restraint that the media exercise in Japan is largely self-imposed — and self-inflicted.

As Japan opens up and becomes a less conspiratorial and a freer society, this restraint may diminish. If this comes about, what will be the impact, I wonder, on the social harmony that derives from the accepted virtue of jishuku?

It would be good if the nation could afford to be more liberal minded while retaining the admirable aspects of self-discipline. It would be nice if you could gradually tip the clouded bathwater out of the bath and hold on to the baby.