/

NHK’s neutrality is essential

by Hugh Cortazzi

The appointment by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe late last year to the board of Japan’s public broadcaster NHK of people who can be described only as right-wing extremists, has been noted by some Japan watchers in Britain as another manifestation of the reactionary political policies being pursued by Abe and his close supporters.

So far, Abe’s expression of political extremism has not aroused the attention of the British media generally, but if the trend continues and if the dangers of a confrontation with China escalate, memories of the Pacific War and the maltreatment of British prisoners of war by the Japanese military are certain to revive.

Britain’s approval does not matter as much to Japan as it did, and Abe may feel that he can ignore British reactions, but American complaisance should not be taken for granted.

I read with astonishment and dismay that Katsuto Momii, the new chairman of NHK, had declared that “It would not do for us to say ‘left’ when the government is saying ‘right.’ ” He is also reported to have said that Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine should not be criticized. I have criticized the visit and will not retract my criticism.

Momii’s remarks can only be interpreted as meaning that in the future NHK will not be politically neutral, as any public service broadcaster funded by the people must be to justify its license fees.

His remarks also bring back memories of the line that the Japanese media were compelled to take during Japan’s wars in the 1930s and ’40s. Every lead column had to declare that the Japanese government was to be praised however stupid, incompetent or immoral its policies may be.

Even today the Japanese media often seem to some of us as too tame, perhaps because the kisha-club system ensures too cozy a relationship between government organizations and the media.

The Economist, the most prestigious London weekly, has suggested that “rebooting the media [to support Abe's reactionary policies] is a strategic priority” for Abe and his coterie.

NHK had dared to criticize the government’s handling of the nuclear crisis. Abe, for economic reasons, favors reviving Japanese nuclear power stations and apparently does not want to see arguments for and against objectively analyzed.

Momii’s remarks are not the only sign that an attempt is being made to turn NHK into a mouthpiece of the Japanese government. NHK board member Michiko Hasegawa, whose recent appointment was backed by Abe, has argued that the ritual suicide of a right-winger in 1993 made the Emperor “a living god.”

This is so bizarre an assertion that I wondered whether she could really have made such an absurd statement.

The alleged public statement by Naoki Hyakuta — another new NHK board member who was also nominated by Abe — that the Nanjing massacre of Chinese civilians was “mere propaganda” by the Chinese was also, to say the least, insensitive, tasteless and hypocritical. The same can be said for Momii’s statement about “comfort women.”

I have heard that my criticisms of Abe have been taken up by the People’s Daily as evidence that the Chinese government was right in their attacks on Japanese policies.

I have no wish or intention of supporting even in a small way Chinese propaganda against Japan. I deplore the way in which anti-Japanese sentiment in China has been stirred up, and I think Chinese saber-rattling in the seas around the Senkaku Islands is dangerous and should stop.

Both China and Japan should, in my view, agree to revert to the formula adopted in 1972 that this issue should be “left on the shelf.” If it cannot be put aside, the dispute should be submitted to the International Court of Justice for a ruling.

Neither China nor Japan would benefit from a confrontation, which would place the United States in a very difficult position.

The U.S. is bound by treaty to defend Japan and is justifiably concerned about growing Chinese military and naval power in the Pacific. But the U.S. government would be highly embarrassed and concerned if it seemed that a confrontation between China and Japan over these uninhabited islands might spark a third world war. This may sound far-fetched, but the possibility has to be taken seriously by friends of both Japan and China.

It was said that the staff of NHK looked to the BBC as a model of public service broadcasting. The BBC, which dates back to the birth of radio in the 1920s, has been popularly called “aunty” because it was considered staid, prim and dull. It has done its best to shed this image and has been criticized by some for broadcasting “naughty” programs.

It has also been accused by the rest of the media, who resent the BBC’s status, power and funding, for wasting the license fees it receives and covering up scandals within its organization. It has been particularly vilified for covering up the scandalous and predatory sexual behavior of one of its most popular presenters, the late Jimmy Savile.

But the fact that the BBC has been the subject of attack from politicians of all the parties suggests that it has managed reasonably and successfully to maintain political neutrality.

During the Iraq War, the BBC aroused the ire of the Blair government and, as a result of an inquiry chaired by Lord Hutton, a senior judge, the chairman and director general of the BBC were forced to resign.

Most British people probably now recognize that the worst that could be said of the BBC’s handling of this episode was that it was inept.

The BBC sometimes makes mistakes in their investigative programs, but programs that are overly cautious can be dull and pointless. The BBC’s “Panorama” programs are often very much to the point and those who are criticized in these programs mostly deserve to be exposed.

NHK could, I reckon, still learn from the BBC. The Japanese government should observe the principle, which I hope the British government will continue to apply to the BBC — namely uphold the neutrality and integrity of NHK. It should not try to turn it into a government lapdog.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.