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NHK governors’ impartiality doubted

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Shocking remarks like “there was no Nanjing Massacre” and “the gender equality law triggered Japan’s low birthrate” by NHK governors appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have called into question the qualifications and neutrality of the public broadcaster’s board and the biased way its members are selected.

Japan’s equivalent of the BBC has been under fire since last month, when Chairman Katsuto Momii said every country had an institutionalized wartime brothel program similar to Japan’s massive “comfort women” system.

The remark raised questions about NHK’s ability to deliver fair and unbiased news.

More recently, abrasive comments by some of NHK’s 12 governors have further fueled the public uproar over the broadcaster, which rakes in more than 96 percent of its almost ¥700 billion in revenue from monthly fees that are supposed to be paid by anyone who owns a TV.

Novelist Naoki Hyakuta, one of the governors, said that the Nanjing Massacre never occurred and that atrocities have been committed in many countries when he made a campaign speech for Toshio Tamogami, a former general in the Air Self-Defense Force running for Tokyo governor.

Hyakuta also called the people running against Tamogami “scum.”

Another NHK governor appointed by Abe, Michiko Hasegawa, a professor emeritus at Saitama University and a philosopher, wrote an essay praising a right-wing activist who committed suicide in the Asahi Shimbun building in 1993.

She also claimed in an essay contributed to the conservative Sankei Shimbun that women should prioritize raising children ahead of working outside the home, contradicting Abe’s growth strategy of bringing more women, including mothers, into the workforce.

Both Abe appointees have said that rules for NHK governors don’t prohibit them from making political comments or engaging in political activities, a notion supported by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

The secretariat of the NHK board of governors told The Japan Times that the network is not in a position to prevent individual governors from making comments based on their beliefs.

Yet the Broadcast Law stipulates that the governors must be able to make fair judgments based on the common public welfare.

“The comments and actions by these governors have made viewers skeptical of whether the board members can act fairly,” said Hidemi Suzuki, a professor at Osaka University’s graduate school of law and politics. “They have damaged the credibility of NHK. Also, there is a lack of balance among the governors when it comes to their politics.”

Unlike the chairman, who holds ultimate control over all NHK programming, the 12 governors can’t interfere with the content of the individual programs. But the governors, who have to be approved by both chambers of the Diet after they are appointed by the prime minister, still wield significant power as they are responsible for selecting the chairman in a process requiring nine governors to say yes. They can also sack the chairman.

This is why Abe was criticized for picking four governors from his circle of friends and who share his conservative bent.

Abe said he is a fan of Hyakuta, whose novel “Eien no Zero” (“Eternal Zero”) has been criticized for glamorizing the kamikaze suicide pilots of World War II.

He and Hasegawa were both founding members of a group advocating for Abe to become prime minister before he was elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party in September 2012.

Fellow board of governors member Katsuhiko Honda, an advisor to Japan Tobacco Inc., was Abe’s tutor.

Another governor, Naomasa Nakajima, is the headmaster of the junior high school affiliated with the Kaiyo Academy, where Yoshiyuki Kasai, chairman of Central Japan Railroad Co. (JR Tokai) and close Abe ally, serves as vice president.

While they came from Abe’s wish list, the four governors were approved in November by the Diet, where the ruling LDP and New Komeito hold a comfortable majority in both chambers, without much questioning from the opposition camp.

Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Your Party, both opposition parties, supported them.

And while the Democratic Party of Japan voted against them and tried to summon Hyakuta to the Diet, DPJ Diet affairs chief Jin Matsubara expressed at a Diet committee in 2007 that the Nanjing Massacre is fiction.

“Abe and Abe’s aides who recommended these people should also be held accountable for not doing enough screening,” said Takaaki Hattori, a Rikkyo University professor who specializes in media law. “The opposition parties that approved the nominees should also be responsible for this, but nobody really talks about it.”

The Broadcast Law was amended in 2008 to strengthen the board’s oversight power after an NHK producer was caught embezzling production money.

The amendment specifically prohibits the governors from having a say in program content, and made some of the governor positions full time, and gave them an annual salary of more than ¥22 million.

The changes also oblige the governors to attend public hearings for viewers.