In his Tokyo Shimbun column about weekly magazines, Hiroyuki Shinoda recently lauded Shukan Asahi for accusing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of exploiting the murder of journalist Kenji Goto by the Islamic State group for political purposes. Shinoda points out that the magazine had been intimidated by the “bashing” its associated newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, received last summer after the latter retracted a series of stories about the “comfort women.” So he was relieved when he saw that Shukan Asahi had recovered the “true essence” of the weeklies’ job, which is to make trouble for those in power.

Regardless of Shukan Asahi’s intentions, the real job of the weeklies is to make money. Though they have a reputation for pestering public figures, their primary reason for doing so is to sell magazines. The mainstream media is too beholden to government and the business world to act as effective watchdogs, so it falls to the weeklies and tabloids to rake whatever muck there is. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to earn profits through journalism, but in the weeklies’ case coverage decisions are dictated by which stories will shift the most units.

Documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori elaborated on this idea in an essay he wrote for the Feb. 11 edition of the Asahi Shimbun. Mori is put off by the official stance the administration and, in turn, the media have assumed when talking about the deaths of Goto and another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa. The government, always prefacing its remarks on the matter with a reference to the despicable nature of their killers, insisted it would never negotiate with terrorists, thus creating an atmosphere in which anyone who questioned its handling of the matter was seen to be on the side of “evil.”

Some pundits fret that the government is leaning rightward, but Mori thinks they’re missing the point. He believes that society is “becoming more group-oriented” (shūdanka). Non-Japanese may find this conclusion unexceptional due to lingering stereotypes about Japanese groupthink, but Mori says the general population’s “herd” tendencies became stronger in 1995 due to three momentous events: the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the Aum subway sarin attack and the release of Windows 95. The anxiety engendered by the first two events was inflamed by the third, which made the Internet more accessible to the average person and thus encouraged interactions among individuals who had never interacted before.

“When people are as afraid as they were in 1995,” he says, “they don’t want to be alone.” They seek solidarity with others who feel the same way. All act as one, “like a school of sardines,” moving in the same direction, at the same speed.

Consequently, anyone outside the group who says something different is shouted down, and that includes the media. Mori mentions the U.S. in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the press couldn’t question the direction the country had taken in response. That’s why so few opposed the misguided invasion of Iraq, which in turn led to the rise of militant groups such as the Islamic State. He believes it is the duty of the Japanese press to interrogate its government’s policy in the Middle East as well as its handling of the hostage crisis, but the press is afraid of public criticism that could hurt its bottom line.

On the same page as Mori’s essay was another by freelance reporter Toshikuni Doi, who has covered the Middle East for 30 years. He points out that reporters like he and Goto “sneak into” conflict zones the mainstream media can’t access and dispatch stories about the situation there, especially the way it impacts civilians. Doi says it’s natural for Japanese people to be concerned about what happens to one of their own, but that’s all the media ever addresses in such situations. When Kenji Nagai was shot by Myanmar troops in 2007 while taking photos of a demonstration, the news was all about Nagai, not the pro-democracy movement he was covering. As Doi sees it, the Japanese public is “insensitive” to the rest of the world, and the media reinforces that insensitivity by giving short shrift to international problems except when they directly impact upon Japanese lives.

This attitude is encouraged by the Abe administration and reflected in its attempts to restrict journalists’ movements overseas, which is understandable if you accept the notion that the authorities could not care less about the press and its supposed freedoms. Though the government is responsible for protecting Japanese citizens, it has been consistently clear in its stated desire to not go out of its way to do so, especially when those Japanese citizens are reporters.

What’s not understandable is how major media seem to support this attitude. When the Asahi Shimbun bucked the Foreign Ministry’s call to remove journalists from hazardous areas in the Middle East, the Sankei Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun scolded their fellow daily for not doing as it was told, as if journalism existed at the pleasure of the authorities. Such criticism contradicts the fundamental tenet of news reporting, famously articulated by George Orwell as “printing what someone else does not want printed.” But even beyond that self-evident principle, the behavior of the Japanese press betrays a lack of insight into what their work is supposed to accomplish even at the most basic level. You see it in NHK’s ineffectual “professional” news presentation style and in the primacy of the kisha club (press club) system.

When photojournalist Yuichi Sugimoto publicly condemned the Foreign Ministry for confiscating his passport in order to prevent him from going to Syria, he stressed that the ministry had taken away his livelihood. He didn’t say anything about the people’s right to know, maybe because it didn’t occur to him that the public thinks it has that right. But when you mention money, everyone pays attention.

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