Seiichi Kanise: Media insider casts an outsider’s eye on Japan


After 17 years’ experience as a top-flight news reporter both at home and abroad, in 1991 Seiichi Kanise began a 10-year stint as a TV news anchorman. Then, after covering a wide range of news events, in 2003 he accepted an offer from the Tokyo-based Bunka Hoso (Nippon Cultural Broadcasting Inc.) radio station to anchor “Next!,” a prime-time morning news program launched in April that year.

Reflecting on his television experience, 54-year-old Kanise is in no doubt that during the 1990s, political coverage on television came to play an increasingly important role in Japanese society. However, his concern is over the balance between form and content.

“Visual images with a strong impact have become more important in political coverage on TV than the contents of the report itself. It’s as if the wrapping paper has become more important than the thing it’s wrapping,” is how he put it.

And though he concedes that TV reports have certainly drawn more people’s attention to the personalities and dramas in Japanese politics, Kanise feels that a lack of focus on any substantial policy discussion may be an important factor contributing to people’s general political apathy.

Kanise’s career as a journalist started in 1974, as a reporter at the Tokyo office of the Associated Press international news agency. Then, after a stint of working for the Agence France-Presse agency, he attended Michigan University’s graduate school as a journalism fellow, focusing his research on the U.S. media’s coverage of the presidency.

In 1988, Kanise returned to Japan as a Tokyo correspondent of Time magazine, before switching to television three years later, first as a TBS news anchorman before switching to TV Asahi. During this time, Kanise was not satisfied with being just in the studio. He defined his own role as an active reporter and commentator by regularly presenting reports from news scenes both in Japan and abroad.

Though his current job as anchor for the 150-minute-long “Next!” show requires a busy schedule, Kanise recently found time to speak to The Japan Times about Japanese people’s relationship to the workings of their political system — TIMEOUT’s focus this week.

What do you regard as the key issue in the Upper House election on July 11?

This election can be considered as a test of confidence for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose government was inaugurated with a very high support from the public but is now seeing that support going down sharply.

Koizumi is a rare kind of Japanese politician in that a lot of his great popularity was because of his way of speaking, using short and catchy words. The style is often called “one-phrase politics,” and it is very easy for the public to understand.

But by now, voters must have noticed the social and financial problems of Japan have not been much improved since he took power, and they must have started questioning if his words have meaning.

I am looking forward to seeing voters’ judgment on recent political issues such as the pension bills and the Self-Defense Forces joining a U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq after the transfer of sovereignty. I am also paying attention to the voter turnout. If it is high, it is possible that the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition, may do well.

Why do you think it is that voter turnout for national elections has been going down recently, especially among younger voters?

In general, younger generations tend to put more priority on their own enjoyment. Not so many young people are concerned very seriously about politics and their distant future. Their turnout, therefore, could be expected to be a bit low.

Aside from that, though, I see a sort of feeling of resignation spreading among young people recently. They think it is impossible to change the society by themselves, so they just live their lives in pursuit of their own happiness. I think it is related to the growing trend of me-ism in Japan, which is also seen among adults, but is more apparent among young people.

Do you think young people’s view of politics has changed in the past 40 years?

Yes. This may be a nostalgia of my generation for the past, but people of my generation believe we had more awareness of politics when we were young than young people now. There were student movements around the world mainly in developed countries. In Japan, we questioned the direction that this country was heading, and we believed we could not just leave it to older generations to lead the country.

I think young people at that time expressed their anger and feelings of discontent with politics more openly. Also, when we were students, we had many political discussions.

I am teaching at a university now, but I seldom hear college students having serious talks about political issues face to face, even though they seem to be communicating all the time on their mobile phones and via e-mails.

Why do you think it appears that young people today don’t do anything about their concerns over political issues, even ones like pension policy that directly affect them?

This is not only about young people, but in Japan, people have a particular approach toward politics. That is, when some problems happen, people often just leave it to the government or officials to deal with them. People just complain about politics without taking any action.

Some call the relationship between the people and politics “theater politics,” which means that people observe politics as if they were the audience in a theater instead of playing a part in the play. These days I see this tendency being increasingly noticeable in society as a whole.

Historically, Japanese people had been accustomed to centralized political systems since feudal times. Later, democracy came as a windfall as a result of Japan’s defeat in World War II. That means that Japanese people have never in their history sought democracy for themselves. This may have something to do with their attitude toward politics.

To what extent do you blame the media for people’s lack of interest in politics?

Look at the political pages in Japanese newspapers — they look like a “Nagata-cho journal” [Nagata-cho the political center of Japan, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.]

A feature of political reporting in Japan is that reporters are more interested in covering in-house political power struggles than in covering discussions on policies. In their reports on political power wrangles, reporters write in detail about which politicians had dinner with which others, and at which restaurant, but they don’t write much about the kind of policy issues that voters are concerned about. I think the media should report more about policy debates.

Also, due to the press-club system and ban-kisha (beat reporter) system, in which particular reporters are assigned to the same politicians all the time, journalists often write stories from a standpoint closer to the politicians than to the people.

On the other hand, TV reports try to use the visual images that are most eye-catching and have the strongest impact. As a result, they often show scenes of politics in confusion, and I think that helps to fuel apathy about politics among people.

This year, there is a presidential election in the United States. How do you see the Japanese electoral campaign in comparison with that?

There are both good points and bad points in the electoral campaigns in both countries. But the biggest difference is that electoral campaigns in Japan are often dominated by catchy but empty phrases.

There are faults in the U.S. electoral campaign system, too, but what I find interesting is that every four years, politicians lay out all the country’s problems on the table for the public to discuss. I see a dynamism in politics in America.

In Japan, on the other hand, political parties often hide the problems under the table before elections. They avoid talking about specific issues in any detail, and just repeat easy-to-understand slogans, like “I am working hard for the people.”

This is a feature of electoral campaigns here, and I think because of this system, not only younger generations, but also older generations do not think much about politics. Probably this has something to do with the history of Japanese politics, in which the Liberal Democratic Party has enjoyed its one-party rule for so long.

In this coming election, however, the pension-policy issue should give politicians opportunities for concrete debate during the campaign and draw the attention of the general public. Pensions are everybody’s problem, and in this sense I will be very interested in the voters’ decision next Sunday.

You worked for TV news before your current job in radio news. What do you find interesting about radio?

When you talk in front of TV cameras as an anchorperson, you feel as if you were delivering a lecture from the stage to a huge audience. You feel like you are talking from a higher place.

But in radio, it is interesting that you feel as if you were speaking to one person on the same level. That is probably because of the difference in the size of studio, the number of cameras and other equipment and the number of staff.

In radio, I can give a closer analysis of issues, and I can give more information through that medium. To me, radio is a more honest medium. Many people probably listen to the radio when they are doing something else, but in spite of that, what’s interesting is that they absorb the information very well. Listeners remember my words aired on radio far better than words broadcast on TV.

Do you think your career is peculiar in Japan, where people have taken it for granted that they would work at the same company until they retire?

So I’ve been told. I worked for foreign media because I wanted to report Japanese news and issues to the outside world. After working for a total of 17 years at wire services and a magazine, I realized Japanese people should learn more about foreign countries, too.

Just at the time when I was thinking that, I was offered a job with a TV news program. For the program, I tried to report as much as possible by myself instead of just reading news. I am thinking that I want to work at one company for about three years because I want to have different experiences in various fields.

To tell the truth, I wanted to be a painter when I was a high-school student, and I was not that good at foreign languages at that time.

So, what are your plans for the future?

I don’t know what I will be doing in the future, as I want to have different challenges throughout my life. I want to write more books, I want to create TV programs and . . . I don’t know. Actually, I was planning to retire at 50. But my daughter is still studying classical ballet in London and I think I have to keep working a little more . . . probably.