Major Japanese newspapers are in league with bureaucrats to maintain the status quo and are the biggest obstacle to political reform, warns Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen.
The nation’s major dailies are helping lawmakers keep their seats in elections, said van Wolferen, and so should be seen “not just as an important political factor influencing things, but as a major component of the political system itself.”
Their function in the political system is not what many people believe it to be, said van Wolferen, a close follower of Japanese politics for the past three decades. “The newspapers are not expected to reveal the true nature of the Japanese political system. So they obfuscate it,” he said
Van Wolferen, 59, a former Far Eastern correspondent for the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad and author of the 1989 worldwide best seller “The Enigma of Japanese Power,” claims Japanese papers share with government officials “an obsession with social order.”
“They believe that they are responsible for preventing social chaos, and that they must do so at all costs,” he said. The papers’ obsession with being “order-keepers,” he noted, has effectively hindered a number of changes that many Japanese expected to happen, especially in the early 1990s.
“If you look at past attempts to actually implement genuine reforms, you see again and again that the biggest obstacle has been the newspapers,” he said, citing former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa as examples of politicians who have been brought down by the nation’s press.
Meanwhile, during election time, the major papers do nothing to enlighten the electorate as to what choices are available, van Wolferen claimed.
“The election period is very short and many types of election campaigns are forbidden,” van Wolferen said. “But aside from that, the newspapers are completely useless with regard to conveying to the electorate what the discussions are all about.”
He said that in this respect, the election system is structured in a way that minimizes the chances that incumbents will be defeated.
The newspapers usually focus on “symbolic issues that have almost nothing to do with actual policies. They do not examine the policies or parties with policy proposals,” charged van Wolferen, a former president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, adding that newspapers give the impression that the opposition has nothing better to offer.
Unlike bureaucrats, lawmakers and political parties, which have often been the focus of debate over political reform, newspapers have not been scrutinized, he said.
The methods of the media, their areas of concern and their failure to provide the electorate with valuable information for democracy to function are not being studied, he said.
Van Wolferen attributed the current nature of newspapers to their relationship with government officials.
“The kind of relations that the Japanese press has with the Finance Ministry, the police and public prosecutors, for example, you do not find in any country that I know (of) where there is a democracy,” he said.
Van Wolferen, who also runs the Institute for Comparative Political and Economic Institutions at Amsterdam University, assumes many individual reporters and editors are not personally in favor of obstructing reformers. He believes it is the institution of the press that forces this role onto them.
“In order to have any kind of political progress or achieve genuine reform, you need to be able to think clearly and separate what is trivial from what is important,” he said. “And newspapers must play a major role in presenting that to the public.”