My choices for the most significant public phenomena of last year are associated with traditional media rather than the social kind, which isn’t to say these phenomena didn’t impact social media and vice versa, only that TV, newspapers and magazines still affect our perception of the world.
Media topic of the year — the Asahi Shimbun: It’s not unusual for a media outlet to become the subject of news reports, but national newspaper Asahi Shimbun’s infamy was special. As Japan’s nominally liberal daily, it has always been the target of reactionary hot-heads out to defend everything they hold dear about Japanese character and its culture, and at least one Asahi reporter was murdered in the past for just that reason.
Last summer, the paper retracted stories it had run since the late 1980s about the abduction of World War II “comfort women” in Korea based on the assertions of one person, Seiji Yoshida, which were proven false back in the ’90s. Though the retraction only covered Yoshida’s version of events, it was cited by historical revisionists as incontrovertible proof that the Japanese military did not force girls and women to sexually serve front-line Imperial soldiers, ignoring mountains of evidence, both documentary and testimonial, that said otherwise.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Asahi also corrected articles claiming that workers at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant abandoned their posts during the 2011 disaster. Adding insult to self-injury, the editors stupidly decided not to run a regular column by popular news explainer Akira Ikegami that negatively analyzed Asahi’s conduct in these matters.
As a result, the paper’s enemies demanded exceptional satisfaction and even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thought Asahi should be punished. The company’s president stepped down, but as its defenders have noted, the first two mistakes, taken by themselves, illustrate the kind of pitfalls any major media outlet falls into while carrying out its work, and that the attacks, carried out not only by parties with ideological axes to grind but by competing media outlets, characterized a rightward drift in public sentiment and illustrated the threat to Japanese press freedom exacerbated by the recently enacted state secrets law.
It should be noted that Asahi was never as liberal as its detractors think it is. Its editors and writers have interpreted the organization’s leftist reputation more as a brand label than as a deeply felt conviction, since it is only liberal in contrast with the more popular, and patently conservative, Yomiuri Shimbun. After all, Asahi sponsors the Korakuen high school baseball tournaments, one of the most shameless re-creations of prewar martial attitude there is.
And like any paper of record, Asahi can come across as smug, a quality that makes it seem condescending to the average person (who is more likely to subscribe to the easier-to-read Yomiuri) and which received its comeuppance during the scandal. For a while, the Asahi was thoroughly intimidated — obviously the goal of its adversaries and rivals — but since the replacement of its president it has regained some of its spunk. The paper’s coverage of the Lower House election last month was more incisive and more critical of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party than any other major media outlet, despite the government’s concerted effort to cow the press with insinuations of biased reporting. In other words, the Asahi covered the election the way it should be covered. Maybe a little existential crisis is exactly what the paper — and Japan’s mainstream press — needed.
Media person of the year — Kei Nishikori: As the first Japanese male to break into the top 10 of the Association of Tennis Professionals’ world singles rankings, Kei Nishikori deserves the attention he received in 2014, but despite his winning ways since 2008, when he was named ATP’s newcomer of the year, he didn’t really interest the Japanese media until he reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open last summer. Consequently, the only place where people in Japan could watch his final match against Croatian Marin Cilic was on Wowow, an event that did more to boost the profile of the subscription satellite channel than anything in its history. Unsurprisingly, Wowow is one of Nishikori’s prime sponsors.
As is Fast Retailing, whose Uniqlo sportswear line was another winner at the U.S. Open since the only two pro tennis players it clothes, Nishikori and Novak Djokovic, played each other in the semifinals. There is a certain mystical rightness to the idea that a casual fashion brand is suddenly catapulted to the status of international sportswear giant by a local boy as he entered the pantheon of his chosen athletic pursuit.
But Wowow and Uniqlo weren’t the only Japanese parties to ride Nishikori’s coattails. Shuzo Matsuoka, the Japanese tennis pro who rose highest in the ATP rankings previously (to 46), and since retirement has carved out a niche as a broadcast sports interviewer and minor TV talent, became Nishikori’s most ardent champion, the go-to guy whenever the younger, American-trained superstar’s technique and style needed explication. Nishikori made the annoyingly chipper Matsuoka invaluable.
TV commercial of the year — Nisshinbo: The great vaudeville comic W.C. Fields once advised fellow actors, “Never work with children or animals,” since their unpredictability wasn’t worth the cuteness potential. Fortunately, the energy and industrial materials company, Nisshinbo, didn’t heed this advice for their series of image spots, all of which feature dogs partaking of human activities using human hands for comic effect. The pinnacle of the series was a parody of NHK’s new year song contest with an excitable golden retriever rising up out of the floor in a luxurious dress just like enka star Sachiko Kobayashi.
Quote of the year — “Why don’t you get married soon?”: The query was reportedly yelled by Tokyo assembly member Akihiro Suzuki while another assembly member, Ayaka Shiomura, gave a speech about the difficulties women face having children. From an international media perspective, the line came to represent the ingrained sexist attitude that needs to be overcome before women in Japan can rise in social and economic stature to the level of men. In contrast, the Japanese media characterized Suzuki’s heckling as an example of “sexual harassment,” which implies an isolated incident rather than an intractable mindset, and thus indicated that the press — as dominated by Y chromosomes as politics is — shares that mindset.