For millions of Japanese, and even Japan-watchers abroad, NHK is a trusted source of information: gray in tone perhaps, but neither black nor white on the issues. This assumption has been put to the test by new NHK Chairman Katsuto Momii, whose recent remarks have led many to wonder whether the public broadcaster is more government mouthpiece and muzzler of dissension than independent informer.

At a news conference on Jan. 25, the day he took charge of the national broadcaster, Momii set off a firestorm of protest by appearing to align NHK with the government.

“When the government is saying, ‘Right,’ we can’t say, ‘Left.’ International broadcasting has such a (propagandist) nuance,” Momii said.

He raised eyebrows further by asserting that “every country” had institutionalized a wartime brothel program similar to Japan’s massive “comfort women” system, which human rights groups, media outlets and others have long stripped the euphemism from, to relabel as “sexual slavery.”

He also said that under his watch NHK’s international programs would not challenge the government’s position on territorial disputes involving Japan, leading many to question the broadcaster’s independence from the nationalistic Cabinet led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

NHK insiders say the change was perceptible even before his appointment. Managers reportedly grew increasingly nervous when airing news reports on politically sensitive topics after Abe took power in December 2012.

A source inside NHK told The Japan Times that managers of the NHK World English service have told staff to avoid the word “controversial” in news reports about war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, and the term “sex slaves” is out of favor as an alternative to the euphemistic comfort women.

“The atmosphere has changed since last year. Managers are noticeably nervous about what is going on air,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In reporting on the diplomatic row over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, NHK translators and copy editors have been told not to use the word “dispute,” the source also said.

Japan’s official stance on the Senkaku dispute is that there is no dispute.

“Since the territorial dispute (intensified in September 2012) and Abe came to power, people have become noticeably more nervous,” the source said.

“NHK is like a post office, not a media organization. (Staff) work like it’s a post office. They do not think their job is to challenge power,” the source said.

When contacted by The Japan Times, NHK’s public relations section declined to comment on the alleged bans, saying only that NHK “always tries to use accurate and easy-to-understand words, based on broadcasting guidelines.”

“We’d like to refrain from answering individual questions” on the use of certain terms, NHK said in an email.

Often compared with the BBC, NHK has long been regarded as a trusted, neutral media outlet. According to a survey last year by the nonprofit Japan Press Research Institute, 3,297 respondents gave NHK’s TV services a credibility rating of 72.5 out of 100. This exceeded newspapers, which got 70.7 points, and radio stations, which received 60.6. Information from Internet sources received only 54.1 points, while Japan’s magazines got a lowly rating of 44.7.

But NHK’s “facts-only” news style is open to criticism for not challenging the government in the name of “political neutrality.”

NHK’s reporting is not black and white but very gray, according to Ellis Krauss, professor of international relations and Pacific studies at the University of California, San Diego, whose 2000 book, “Broadcasting Politics in Japan: NHK and Television News,” looks at how both NHK and the mass media cover Japan’s political scene.

“NHK tries to be neutral and nonpartisan. After all it must appear to serve the views of all Japanese citizens since it is a public broadcaster,” Krauss said.

“The problem is that the LDP has so dominated postwar politics and has subtle behind-the-scenes ways of influencing it to be so ‘neutral’ that it winds up not interpreting news or criticizing the government even when it needs to be criticized,” he added.

“Stories are carefully screened by executives of the news (department) to make sure they don’t appear biased against the government in any way. All of this adds up to a cautious, noninterpretive indirect bias toward the government.”

Meanwhile, media researcher Hiroshi Matsuda, another noted NHK-watcher and a former professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, notes that NHK is not a monolith.

NHK’s Program Production Department, unlike the mainstream News Department, is “very liberal” and often produces quality feature documentary programs that criticize the government, he said.

“If you look at the whole of NHK, you can find quality programs,” Matsuda said.

“But the news reporting (by the News Department) is pro-government,” he said.

In his 1995 memoir, the late Keiji Shima, who was NHK chairman from April 1989 to July 1991, alleged LDP executives repeatedly pressured NHK and often had a hand in choosing its chairman.

“The biggest problem is (politicians) try to control news reporting and public opinion through NHK,” wrote Shima, who was an influential NHK political correspondent and had firsthand knowledge of NHK’s relationship with ruling party lawmakers.

Shima pointed out that NHK’s budget, though mainly funded by fees collected from millions of viewers, needs to be approved by the Diet every year, which gives lawmakers leverage.

“If we clash (with the power), we definitely face retaliation in the process of (the Diet’s) approval of the budget and the appointment of personnel. . . . Even if (the people) in power or the politicians don’t say anything, self-censorship becomes stronger and stronger,” he wrote.

NHK’s chairman is chosen by the 12-member Board of Governors, who themselves are chosen and appointed by the prime minister with Diet approval. In this way, the government has indirect control over NHK, Shima wrote.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, too, is rumored to have pressured NHK to change its content in line with his nationalistic views of history and politics.

In 2005, one of NHK’s chief producers alleged at a news conference that Abe and fellow Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Shoichi Nakagawa had pressured NHK to alter a 2001 documentary about a mock court held by a citizens’ group to judge Japan’s wartime comfort women system.

A 2008 Supreme Court ruling dismissed high court damages awarded to the citizens’ group while avoiding judgment on whether Abe and Nakagawa actually influenced NHK before the program aired in its altered form in 2001.

Abe claimed that in a meeting with an NHK executive he just in general argued that NHK should maintain a neutral position and report on alternative opinions when covering a contentious topic.

In November 2013, Abe, this time using his power as prime minister, replaced four of the 12 members of NHK’s Board of Governors with close friends and acquaintances.

One, writer Naoki Hyakuta, tweeted in September that the 1937 Nanjing Massacre never happened, echoing the opinion of many nationalistic, right-leaning lawmakers.

According to Kyodo News and other media outlets, LDP executives have chafed at recent NHK programs critical of government policies, including those on nuclear power and the deployment of Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft by the U.S. military in Okinawa. Media have speculated this frustration prompted Abe to appoint close allies to the Board of Governors.

When former NHK Chairman Masayuki Matsumoto announced on Dec. 5 he was stepping down after his first three-year term, one of the governors reportedly proposed that Momii, a former president of Nihon Unisys Ltd., a major IT solutions service, take his place.

Major newspapers reported senior officials in the prime minister’s office were thought to be behind the nomination.

Media researcher Matsuda argued that NHK, like the BBC, should recruit its chairman through an open, public campaign, not the opaque personal connections of board governors.

“(NHK) should openly seek talented people from the public, and choose the most competent person among them,” Matsuda said.

Mizuho Aoki contributed to this report.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.